A Coen Brothers
film has a certain singular rhythm, a certain irreverently acute love for Greek tragedy and Homeric adventures. In “Barton Fink,” a Hollywood producer demands that his film have “that Barton Fink Feeling.” The Coen Brothers’ films all have that Coen Brothers Feeling: the malaise of modernity, an endless fascination with losers and emasculated men.
The Coens remain more faithful to the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 Henry Hathway/John Wayne film, but something feels flat and lifeless here. Jeff Bridges’s grumpy, groggy Rooster Cogburn is a sight to behold, though one can’t help but see the spectral presence of John Wayne lingering. Wayne, one of the screen’s great inimitable but endlessly imitated personas, wasn’t much of an actor, yet his mere presence was often captivating. That presence, that grand feeling, is absent here. The Coens, for all their formidable formal maneuvers and stylistic inclinations, fail to conjure any real mystery or awe. Regardless, we get a few stunning set pieces, Bridges is obviously a much better actor than Wayne, and Hailee Steinfeld does an admirable job as the young girl who hires Cogburn. Not a bad film by any means, but certainly not up to par with the Coens’ others.
15. “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones lead a typically stacked lineup of Coen regulars in this story of divorce attorneys and scheming women. Clooney has that old school Cary Grant-esque smarmy charm, and his performance is a slick as his salt-and-pepper hair. Zeta-Jones matches him beat by seductive beat, but the movie never feels as significant or daring as the Coens’ better comedies.
14. “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)
Tim Robbins plays an eccentric, jocular man who is appointed president (and proxy) of a sinking company by its insidious board leader (Paul Newman), and subsequently invents the hulahoop. I can’t think of a more Coen Brothers-y a subject for a film. Between this and Altman’s “The Player,” Robbins put in some of his best work in the early-’90s, and the scene in which he tries to explain the gyrating apparatus to a befuddled board of geriatric white men (“Does it have rules?” “What if you get tired?” “Is it a game?” “Will it break?” “It better break eventually!”) is typical Coens: sharp, syncopated dialogue and an almost existential longing on Robbins’ part (in this scene he never stops hulahooping). It also has Paul Newman, which automatically makes “The Hudsucker Proxy” decent at worst, brilliant at best.
13. “The Ladykillers” (2004)
A group of criminal idiots plot to kill an old, church-going African American lady, played by Irma Hall (I don’t point out her ethnicity arbitrarily—it plays a significant part in the story) so they can use her basement to tunnel into a nearby casino. But these are the most incompetent criminals ever, and their every attempt fails miserably. The most underappreciated movie of the brothers’ career, this tar-black remake of a far more affable, less contentious ’50s British comedy starring Alec Guiness is ruthless in its pursuit of laughs. It’s so mean and insensitive, a lot of moviegoers dismissed it, and it’s often regulated to the bottom of the Coens’ filmography. Tom Hanks throws himself completely into the role of a sinister southern gentleman with awful facial hair and an even worse laugh; tapping the darkness of his turn in Sam Mendes’ gorgeous “The Road to Perdition” and the slapstick insanity of his early career comedies, Hanks gives one of his best performances. The whole motley crew, which includes J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Tzi Ma, and Ryan Hurst, is uproarious.
12. “Blood Simple” (1984)
Joel and Ethan’s debut feature, a blood-soaked neo-noir on a shoestring budget, contains many of the visual and thematic motifs that permeate their lustrous career. With playful trick shots (the camera gliding along a bar, hoping over a passed-out drunkard on the way to its eventual destination) and that sharp Coen humor, “Blood Simple” establishes the ingenuity the filmmakers have continually used to accentuate the eccentricities of American lowlifes. The story is familiar: a guy (John Getz) and a girl (Frances McDormand) plan to run off together; her husband (Dan Hedaya) doesn’t like that, so he hires a two-timing private eye-cum-killer (E. Emmett Walsh, spectacularly slimy) to take care of things. A handful of moments imbued with genuine suspense still rank among the most memorable in the post-noir film canon, especially those final moments.
11. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)
People who don’t love the Coens usually love “Miller’s Crossing”: it has a lighter, airier touch than the brothers’ subsequent gangster-noirs, and flows fluidly and confidently, like an old river, but doesn’t delve into hysteria like “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski.” It also lacks that Coen Brothers left turn, as Leonard Maltin calls it. Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work maybe ever, is a double-, triple-, quadruple-crossing gangster whose long-time boss, played by the great Albert Finney, goes to war with his hot-heated Italian rival, played by Jon Polito, because Polito wants to kill John Turturro’s shyster Jewish bookie. Marcia Gay Harden, Turturro’s sister, is sleeping with a few of them, which complicates matters. A transcendent experience that admittedly hits the occasional snag, this marks the beginning of the Coens’ insanely impressive ’90s output.
10. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
It seems a bit odd that it took the Coens almost 20 years before they experimented with black-and-white photography, since their films exclusively exist in the gray synapse between the bright light and pitch darkness. Filmed in color and converted post-production, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of their most visually eloquent productions. Billy Bob Thornton, who chewed into his villainous role on FX’s fantastic “Fargo” with relish, is the title character, a fleshy shell of a man. Expunged of life, he’s a barber with a monotone voice in a monochrome world. His wife (Frances McDormand) and her boss (James Gandolfini, still in the beginning of “The Sopranos” when he filmed this) are sneaking around not-so-subtly behind his back, while a young Scarlett Johansson looks to him as a fatherly sage, and maybe more. A serene jaunt into sin, this has long been a favorite of the Coens’ devout followers. Whereas most neo-noirs are overly concerned with emulating the remorseless violence of noir, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is concerned with consequences. It feels like a relic from the vault of Robert Aldrich.
9. “Burn After Reading” (2008)
The Coens create a reality inhabited exclusively by self-centered, paranoid ingrates, all of whom are deeply afflicted with the most vainglorious kind of ineptitude. Idiocy is a plague, according to John Malkovich, clearly having sardonic fun as the henpecked husband who gets fired from his CIA job because he had a drinking problem. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand are all at their funniest, but J.K. Simmons as a CIA administrator steals both of his brief scenes, and really the whole film, the kicker of the whole flick being that the CIA can’t even make sense of the rampant stupidity of the world, nor do they seem to care. Plus, dildo rocking chair.
8. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Channeling Homer as well as “Sullivan’s Travels,” this musical/crime capper/road picture/fairy tale hodgepodge is the Coens at their most scattershot, as well as their most adventurous. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson are three chain gang escapees who serendipitously encounter various people of varying fictitiousness, from Baby Face Nelson to a black man who sold his soul to Old Scratch in order to play the guitar, on their way to finding hidden treasure (but really to stop Clooney’s ex-wife from getting remarried). Imbued with sepia-toned folk magnificence and rooted in magical realism, the film wrangles together virtually every possible genre known to man; if the results are messy, that’s fine, since it’s such a delightful, life-affirming mess.
7. “A Serious Man” (2009)
Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry Gopnik, a sometimes-physics professor and full-time Jew having a life crisis. His wife wants a get (Jewish divorce) so she can marry another guy, and Larry finds himself slipping deeper into desolation. The Coens’ most Jewish movie (Larry has more than a bit of Job in him), “A Serious Man” tackles issues afflicting the Jewish Diaspora, but without ostracizing non-Jewish viewers. The opening, with the wicked-good character actor Fyvush Finkel, has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and almost feels like a Mario Bava short, but it’s nonetheless enthralling; and that ending shot…
6. “Raising Arizona” (1987)
Nicolas Cage has rarely been so lovable as the a wild-haired small-time criminal with a big heart and modest ambitions. Stare in bewilderment as Cage taps into that affable sort of crazy that he still occasionally conjures when he’s not scrounging for money at the bottom of a third-tier action flick. Marvelously paired with Holly Hunter, Cage plays the role with innocent, rambunctious charm, in a sweaty Hawaiian shirt. The hellish biker scenes in particular are outstanding fun.
5. “Barton Fink” (1991)
Penned while the brothers were struggling with “Miller’s Crossing,” this seething, surreal indictment of artists (something they’d revisit with “Inside Llewyn Davis”) spews venom at Hollywood sell-outs as well as self-important writers. (Faulkner gets an especially lacerating depiction, masterfully performed by John Mahoney.) John Turturro plays the title character, a left-wing playwright who claims to be a champion of the people but who never seems to actually give a shit about the people. John Goodman, that big ol- cuddly, sweaty bear in suspenders, plays his neighbor, Charlie, a door-to-door salesman who has some stories to tell, if Barton ever listens. The hotel in which Barton and Charlie live is as much a character as either of those men, with its oozing, secreting walls and long, ominous halls. One of the more polarizing Coen flicks, “Barton Fink” doesn’t pretend to peddle in bankability, as it revels in literary allusions and abrupt changes in tone and timbre. It’s also notable for being the first Coen film shot by God—er, I mean Roger Deakins — as well as being responsible for Cannes changing its rules to limit films to one major award, as “Barton Fink” nabbed Best Picture, Actor, and Director unanimously.
4. “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Remember when this Chandler-esque non-mystery flopped in 1998? No, you were probably still a child who, like most of its dearly devoted, discovered “The Big Lebowski” on DVD in the early-aughts. While many of its fanatics seem to belie the whole post-modern detective farce at the heart of the film in favor of brandishing its more latent stoner tendencies, “The Big Lebowski” is nonetheless a masterpiece of absurdism, that rare entity that, while fervidly beloved by masses (there’s even a Lebowski shop in New York’s SoHo), still feels fresh and hip. While not as visually imaginative as their subsequent films (that musical dream sequence notwithstanding), the tale of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), his Vietnam Vet chum Walter (John Goodman), and the gregarious Donny (Steve Buscemi) is dense with layers and entendres. Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman has the most awkward laugh this side of Jeff Goldblum. If you burn too much of the Devil’s lettuce before watching, the myriad nods to George Bush (the first one) and the Gulf War may go right over your head, man.
3. “Fargo” (1996)
As good as FX’s television reimagining is, the original film is a certifiable classic. Let’s just name a few of the film’s accomplishments: Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief Marge Grunderson has more humanity and depth than most films manage to convey with an entire array of characters. William H. Macy’s myriad stutters and stammers are all scripted, showing the careful consideration the Coens put into their films. Carter Burwell’s score evokes the despondent feeling of trying to reach out and grab nebulous whorls of breath in the frigid Minnesota air. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s clashing lowlifes could be comedic relief in a lesser film, but are here equally essential to the mood and narrative (while still providing some riotous laughs). And has there been a more wonderful depiction of marriage than Marge and Norm (Carroll Lynch)? The (not true) story concerns an idiot trying to coerce money from his stingy father-in-law by having his own wife kidnapped, which, of course, goes immediately awry. Rarely has violence been used with such fierce conviction: rather than dwelling on the bloodshed, the Coens use murder as a means to advance a story. Human lives matter in “Fargo,” and killing only ever creates more problems. To lift the tagline from another Coens film, “There Are No Clean Getaways.”
2. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
Imbued with an all-pervading melancholy, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a cryptic, poetic ode to art and the artists that make it. Oscar Isaac is the titular folk singer, who embarks on an Ouroboros of an adventure, seemingly designed by Sisyphus himself. Oscar is one of the great film assholes of recent memory. No other Coens character is so deeply rooted in, and such an unmistakable product of his world. Oscar’s ashen, icy New York is a turgid concrete tundra rendered in grayscale. Everything is the color of stale cigarette smoke. The most important aspect of Oscar’s plateau-like arc is that Oscar isn’t a genius; if he was, the movie would be a different kind of tragic, the familiar story of a brilliant artist whose work goes unappreciated until, suddenly, it doesn’t. Oscar is good, but so is virtually every other musician we meet here. The brief digression with John Goodman as a cankerous, heroin-addled jazz musician may seem arbitrary and pointless, but it still elicits a singular morose feeling. Most great comedies make you laugh and then make you cry, and then make you laugh; “Inside Llewyn Davis” makes you laugh while you’re crying.
Staying painstakingly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s bleak-as-fuck novel, the Coens crafted one of the most enthralling, elusive works of cinematic art of the last decade in the guise of a neo-western. With shades of Howard Hawks, the filmmakers eschew their usual flamboyance and use the vast beige landscape of southern Texas, its purported normality and dusty nothingness, as a kind of self-contained purgatory from which the characters can never escape. The violence hits as hard as in a Peckinpah film, but without the self-conscious deprivation. Josh Brolin is really good as the blue collar Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a vast sum of drug money; Javier Bardem (nabbing Supporting Actor honors) is even better as the enigmatic killer on his trail, a murderous apparition who adheres to his own unique code; and Tommy Lee Jones is incredible as the veteran sheriff chasing after both men. From his opening narration, delivered in a measured rhythm with subtle inflections and deadpan irreverence, Jones captivates with his usual sapient demeanor, calm and considered but still baffled by the ineffable violence erupting around him. Featuring some of the Coens’ most articulate framing, careful and calculated camerawork, and lucid photography, “No Country for Old Men” exists on a plane separate from their other films. It lacks a true musical score, yet its sparse dialogue, purged of anything even resembling superfluity, maintains the syncopated rhythm typical of a Coens’ film. On a technical level, this is as close to perfect as movies get.
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