What does it say about a pair of filmmakers when the five titles you choose to leave off a considered career overview contain at least one masterpiece (their adaptation of True Grit) and two terrific examples of their aesthetic reach (The Man Who Wasn’t There and Burn After Reading). Indeed, when discussing the Coen Brothers, only a couple of their movies warrant instant dismissal, and even then, both Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of The Ladykillers have their positives and their patrons. Of course, some may argue that any or all of these leftovers actually belong in the heralded halls of this Top 10, and that any number of the selections made herein are half-baked and ill-advised. To each his or her own.
Truth is, it’s almost impossible to fathom the track record of these remarkable filmmakers. Fifteen movies since their early ’80s start, and very few, if any are true artistic flops. In fact, many would argue that they’ve made more masterworks than misfires, and that even their ‘failures’ are far better than anything the standard studio system creates. They aren’t just artists. They’re the very definition of an auteur. So in celebration of their catalog finally coming to Blu-ray (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing are new to the format this week), we rank the brothers incredibly output. Placement be damned… when it comes to the Coens, almost everything is a classic, beginning with this unusual entry…
If Barton Fink was a meditation on writer’s block and the ditzy demands of the Hollywood studio system, then this is their take on religion, fate, faith, and belief. Tagging their own personal dogma — Judaism — and tying it to the rising counterculture of the ’60s, the result is a warped world view that suggests that God is not only vengeful, but petty, spiteful, and imbued with a wicked sense of humor. From the adulterous wife who makes her husband feel guilty for the betrayal to the relative with a seeping pus wart on the back of his neck, the Brothers always find a way to make the ridiculous seem reverent. Here, it’s almost holy.
With a little help from pal Sam Raimi in the script department, the boys went back to the screwball roots of Tinseltown comedy to create one of the greatest epic experiments in humor ever. Everything in this film is big — the opening suicide of Warring Hudsucker, the boardroom where the corporate ruse is concocted, the basement mail machine that Norville Barnes ‘advances’ from, the canvas of a late ’50s NYC. Everything is also very arch and reference oriented. Clearly some viewers didn’t get the joke. Of all the Coen Brothers films, this is one that remains either a clear fan favorite or a best forgotten failure.
With its combination of star power (George Clooney) and its roots revival music, this became one of Coens first commercial hits. Before, they were always considered arthouse darlings exclusively. But thanks to their lead, and the likable take on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the mainstream sat up and took notice. Using the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer as a jumping off point, the duo delivered a kind of redneck reinvention of the road movie, a combination of the past and present with each element flawlessly intertwined into the next. That it connected beyond the critical crowd argues for the boys’ brilliance as artists.
As their second full length feature, the Coens decided to avoid another noirish murder mystery and, instead, make an all out ‘classic’ comedy. Settling on a story about a childless couple who abduct a local quintuplet, they developed a collection of insane characters and then put them through some incredibly complex situations. As a result, they expanded their motion picture playbook while utilizing the skills that had served them so well previously. With flawless performances from an amazing cast (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter have NEVER been better) and direction which circles the oddball action like a hungry coyote, this triumph marked the beginning of an unbelievable string of successes.
The one that started it all. The film that caught critics off guard and turn fans into fanatics. The brothers were just another novelty when they introduced this seedy, sinister thriller to unsuspecting audiences, and as they like to say, the rest is cinematic history. Aside from the magnificent script, on point performances and innovative direction, the movie managed the near impossible — it found a way to turn the tired old story of an unfaithful wife, a suspicious husband, and the dirty private dick hired to uncover the crime of passion into something Shakespearean. As a benchmark and a blueprint, it remains one of their best.
5 – 1
When The Hudsucker Proxy bombed at the box office (sure, we love it today, but back then audiences didn’t get its throwback approach), the Coens were faced with a dilemma. They were popular among the intellectuals, but had yet to break through to a wider base. Using the true story of a local kidnapping as inspiration, they produced a black comedy so clever few could fathom its true greatness. Even better, their peers finally sat up and listened. After a mere smatter of awards season attention (everywhere but Cannes, that is), they finally racked up some significant Oscar buzz — and a couple of well earned trophies.
In some ways, the cult that surrounds this film often threatens to overwhelm what is actually on screen. Like Scarface and Donnie Darko, the obsession can frequently feel wildly out of place. Not here, though. In this case, the Coens created an expert combination of character and craziness, an old fashioned farce where F-bombs and freak show foreigners replace classic contrivances like mistaken identity and switched up rooms. Granted, it’s the delicious dialogue (and its faultless delivery by a seasoned cast) that keeps the customers coming back. On the other hand, the overall feel and tone of the piece provide more than enough fuel for the rabid faithful.
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, this film finally proved that the Coen Brothers stand as America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves — and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.
Mired in the death throes of a bad case of writer’s block, the guys gave up on the period gangster piece Miller’s Crossing and, instead, decided to take their angst out on the source of the misery — the movie industry. Setting the story in the early ’40s and focusing on a self-important writer faced with ‘dumbing down’ his muse for an unsympathetic studio, the brothers threw in all their obsessions — crime, horror, love, despair, blood, violence, death…and redemption. Foreign film critics took notice — they award the film the 1991 Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Even better, the experience spurred a renewed desire to complete the original project that put them there in the first place.
At their core, the Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinseltown’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods — they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.