If you read the first part of this countdown, you know which eight movies are remaining. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Coen Brothers’ career is that those eight movies represent Film Noir, Absurdist Comedy, Western, Gangster, Musical, as well as three movies that defy any easy description. They are spread throughout the brothers’ timeline. Most of them tackle major thematic issues, and most of them are supremely entertaining.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, IMDB – 9)
In the last twenty years, Roger Deakins has been nominated for his cinematography twelve times. He has yet to win. It is the biggest oversight in the current Oscar universe. Beginning with Barton Fink in 1991, Deakins has shot every Coen Brothers movie with the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis and the negligible Burn After Reading. He has been Oscar nominated for five of those collaborations. Of all his near misses, 2001 was the most egregious. The winner that year, Andrew Lesnie, did fine work for The Fellowship of the Ring. But Deakins’ black & white photography for The Man Who Wasn’t There may be the greatest work in the last fifty years of American film.
The Coens never showed their indebtedness to noir as much as they did in the quiet little drama about a quiet little man who gets in over his head. There are characters named Nirdlinger and Diedrickson which make this a direct homage to the most iconic of all noirs, Double Indemnity. The lead character, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) narrates the proceedings in classic noir tradition. Ed is a solitary man who works as a barber. He is surrounded by others who love to talk, from his benevolent brother-in-law and fellow barber Frank (Michael Badalucco) to his wife’s blowhard boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) to a fast talking salesman played by another Coen favourite Jon Polito. Ed will get involved in blackmail and murder, partly out of revenge and partly out of greed. But mostly it appears he is just bored with life and needs a little diversion.
The story is pretty basic noir material, but it has a 17-year old, about-to-make-it-big Scarlett Johansson (who will appear in her second Coen movie with Hail Caesar! next year.) And Frances McDormand. And Roger Deakins, who makes virtually every frame into a glorious painting.
7. The Big Lebowski (1998, IMDB – 1, tie)
I realise that putting this at number 7 will piss some people off. This is many fans’ favourite Coen Brothers’ movie. It is some people’s favourite movie, period. The Coens have never been funnier, and in Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, they create a lead character who, unlike the leads in their other frivolous comedies, is fascinating to watch and easy to root for. The plot is a convoluted mess (intentionally so) which has The Dude being buffeted around by forces that far outpace his talents. In Walter and Donny (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, respectively) he has equally watchable and equally ineffective allies.
Lebowski begins with tumbleweed imagery, which sums up the way The Dude lives his life. But it would be wrong to consider The Dude as aimless. It’s just that what The Dude is passionate about wouldn’t necessarily strike the rest of us as important. Lebowski came out just as the dominant American television comedy of its era, Seinfeld, was drawing to a close. People have misinterpreted Seinfeld as being “a show about nothing.” It was always about something, but that “something” was the trivial matter of daily life. The audacity of Lebowski, the thing that makes it work, is that the Coens were willing to build an entire film comedy about a character who would go to extraordinary lengths merely to recover his rug. In a very real sense The Dude is ennobled by the triviality of his quest.
In 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson made a similar movie, Inherent Vice. It largely fell flat. Anderson’s movie tells the story of a private detective who investigates actual crimes, kind of a blending of Lebowski and Chinatown. Perhaps he should have aimed lower.
6. True Grit (2010, IMDB – 6, tie)
The original True Grit, made in 1969 by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, was a good movie. Gruff sheriff Rooster Cogburn offered Wayne his best late-career role. But the Coens far outpace the original, and Jeff Bridges – that’s right, The Dude himself – plays the hell out of Rooster. But the real find in True Grit is Hailee Steinfeld as 14-year old Mattie Ross, who engages a reluctant Rooster to bring her father’s killer to justice.
The Coens first decision was to be very faithful to Charles Portis’ original novel, and the West they and Rogers Deakins capture is both mythic and real. It is a West that allows for the spectacular and the base. A West that Jim Jarmusch was getting at in his own genre-tilting Western Dead Man. The use of Bridges is crucial here, not just because he had grown into the part of the drunken has-been. But his presence forms something of a dialogue with Lebowski. Maddie is just as passionate about vengeance as The Dude is about his rug. The terribly sad, albeit successful, ending of True Grit, suggests that a scrap of rug may in fact be far more valuable than all the righteous revenge in this world.
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990, IMDB – 6, tie)
From the moment that Jon Polito rails about getting “the high hat” at the beginning of the Coens’ third movie, we are in rarefied air. Miller’s Crossing is a great gangster movie with a healthy dose of absurdism. It offers dark, convoluted noir with a wink and a smile. That plot is far too difficult to sum up, so suffice to say that it has enough double and triple crosses to keep your head spinning long after the final credits role.
Miller’s Crossing uses many of the Coens developing stable of favourite actors, with the aforementioned Polito joining names like Buscemi and Badalucco, and of course, McDormand. John Turturro stands out as the snivelling survivor at the centre of all the rancour. But at its core, it uses several actors who would never perform for the Coens again. Marcia Gay Harden, the unkillable Albert Finney, and the cerebral Gabriel Byrne give great one shot performances.
Reportedly, the Coens suffered from severe writer’s block during pre-production, which led them to craft Barton Fink, their next movie.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, IMDB – 10, tie)
Music has always played a crucial role in the Coen Brothers movies so it seemed only a matter of time before they made a movie about a musician. The movie begins with its early1960’s folk singer Llewyn at his lowest point, drunk and insulting, and eventually beaten up for his boorishness. We will then retrace his steps to find how he came to this point.
The Coens have never shied away from revealing the many flaws and unpleasant sides of their heroes. Here, it is a testament to their writing and to star Oscar Isaac’s remarkable performance that we build up more and more sympathy for the prickly Llewyn as we see how his week-from-hell has unfolded. It is well known in the film business, as I’m sure it must be in any creative profession, that people are willing to put up with quite a lot of bullshit from those who possess rare genius. But what if you only possess a more retail brand of genius? Llewyn is good. Very good in fact. But he ain’t Dylan, and that is his real flaw. The scene in which F. Murray Abraham’s music power broker spells this out for Llewyn is one of the most emotionally devastating scenes the brothers have filmed.
Llewyn has a bit of The Dude in him, going to great lengths to retrieve the cat he has let run off. But despite its humour, this is far darker territory than Lebowski. No one dies. There are no wood chippers or decapitated heads, but this still has great impact. And great music. From the wonderful novelty spoof “Please Mr. Kennedy” to Llewyn’s signature “Fare Thee Well,” this is a very good folk soundtrack. And in true Coen fashion, the appearance of a very young Robert Zimmerman at the end offers both hope for the future of art while simultaneously securing our hero’s place as a talented also-ran. Great complexity for a movie about a guy looking for a lost cat.
3. No Country for Old Men (2007, IMDB – 3)
23 years after their debut, the Coens won Oscars for Picture, directing, and writing, along with a boatload of other awards too numerous to count. This is one of their two most ambitious movies, combining a mythic scope with a one-for-the-ages image of fate. The talented cast are all at their best. Roger Deakins’s photography is memorable. Indeed, once seen, none of this is easily forgotten.
This is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy and he is no doubt responsible for a lot of the tone. But this is very clearly a Coen Brothers movie, one that reveals the maturity of experience. It is easy to see, for instance, in Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Anton Chigurh, a far more developed version of Leonard Smalls, the doomsday character somewhat generically created in Raising Arizona. And whereas Marge Gunderson could use her homespun grit and wisdom to stave off evil a decade before in Fargo, Tommy Lee Jones’ worn-out lawman can only sit back and watch as fate plays out in No Country.
Along with True Grit, No Country for Old Men is the most elegiac of the brothers’ movies. They get some levity out of the central characters played by Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson, but it is a true testament to the Coens that they could make something this somber and this entertaining. It is an accomplishment that few filmmakers could have managed.
2. Fargo (1996, IMDB – 1, tie)
Frances McDormand, a few years removed from Yale Drama School, met Joel Coen when she auditioned for a role in the Coen’s first movie, Blood Simple. Joel not only found his lead actress at that audition. He found his life partner. She has acted for Joel and Ethan in a number of parts, both large and small. Marge Gunderson in Fargo was her triumph, her Oscar, her most defining moment.
It was a defining moment for the Coens as well. Coming off of two poorly-received features (Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy) there was a real sense in Hollywood that these quirky siblings might never build on the promise of their first three offbeat films. Fargo changed everything.
Marge doesn’t appear in Fargo for about the first 20 minutes (a rarity for an Oscar-winning lead performance). The Coens build a strong foundation for a crime story before her appearance, eschewing their signature film noir for the freshly coined sub-genre film blanc in which sterile white replaces the dark shadows of noir. (Bille August and Sam Raimi would follow suit in the subsequent years.) Outstanding character work from William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare (as a lightweight Anton Chigurh) set the plot in motion. But it is when Marge enters that Fargo goes somewhere new. Her simple brilliance, her kind doggedness, and that “what a beautiful day” voice were new entries in the crime film genre. It is McDormand’s skill that allows Marge to see and feel the worst of humanity, yet still be able to see and feel the best. This is similar territory to No Country for Old Men, and it is reasonable to argue that No Country is a more ambitious, bolder statement. But I prefer Fargo because it is a more hopeful and entertaining ride. I prefer Fargo because of Marge.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, IMDB – 5)
Tracey Seeley may have summed it up best. In her essay on the Coens eighth feature, the University of San Francisco scholar wrote “To pin a label on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you seem to need more hyphens that warts on a horny toad.” That ability to transcend generic labelling may be the essence of the Coens’ greatness. O Brother stands at the midpoint of their career to date, and it has all the outlandish humour of their best comedies, all the search for meaning of their most contemplative dramas, and, of course, more great music than Ulysses Everett McGill has cans of Dapper Dan hair pomade. The soundtrack album, produced by T-Bone Burnett, has sold 8 million copies and has a slew of music industry awards.
George Clooney’s best performance as the fast-talking Everett. Memorable work from Tim Blake Nelson as his slow-witted accomplice Delmar, and outstanding support from Coen stalwarts like John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, and Charles Durning.
There are those who consider this one of the frivolous comedies, though obviously more complex than something like Intolerable Cruelty. Nonsense. This is the Coens’ most complex examination of America – what it was, reflecting on what it has become. Everett is the classic American success story. And it may be as good a depiction of racism – racism from the dominant perspective of the white man – as any American film. Its equation of poor white America with oppressed black America, as the three white men at the centre of the story journey throughout the Depression era deep South and become increasingly identified as “colored,” is a crucial political statement.
The Coens drew inspiration from both Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and Homer’s Odyssey. Sturges is as fine a comic writer-director as America has ever produced, and in Sullivan’s Travels he is examining the value of comic art in a brutal world. Homer was delving into man’s most noble endeavours. To combine the two impulses was a monumental undertaking. Throw in some Joyce, the particular brand of Southern politics, a compendium of American music, and a dwarf with a broom, and well, you have something that would seem to be impossible to hold together.
This is an astonishing collection of characters and moments, humour and sex and faith and race. And music. From the chain-gang chant that kicks it off to the meet-your-maker “O Death” at the climax … from the infectious Man of Constant Sorrow to Chris Thomas King’s haunting channeling of Skip James in “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” … this is America, and American filmmaking at its very best.
And so, you have multiple Oscars, prizes from Cannes and from the Independent Spirit Awards, AFI “Movie of the Year” recognition for a quarter of their total output. And they still defy categorisation. And they are still relativity young men. And they still continue to entertain and astonish. Hopefully for many years to come.