MY FIVE FAVOURITE COEN BROS MOVIES
In anticipation of the Coen Brothers upcoming release, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, their sixteenth film together, TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will be screening some of their greatest collaborations in a series entitled, Joel & Ethan Coen: Tall Tales. As we at Black Sheep Reviews are also anxiously anticipating the 1960’s set, folk music film, starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan, we thought now might be the perfect time to look back at our five favourite films from the brothers known as Coen.
Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Up until FARGO, the Coen Brothers had made a solid name for themselves as talented, independent filmmakers, but they had never succeeded in crossing over into the mainstream. It’s fitting that they should do so with a tale that is set smack dab in the middle of America. It is presented as a true story but in fact it isn’t, which the Coens felt allowed them to be more outrageous than they would ordinarily be allowed to be, as people would accept what they saw as fact. What they saw was a Minneapolis car salesman (William H. Macy) orchestrate the kidnapping of his wife (Kristin Rudrud) in order to extort money from his father-in-law (Herve Presnell). Naively, he believes nothing could go wrong, but inevitably it all does and a Brainerd, Minnesota, police chief (Frances McDormand) is called to investigate this bizarre tale. If all you can focus on in FARGO are the funny accents and the wood chipper than you aren’t really seeing FARGO for the masterpiece that it is. From Carter Burwell’s haunting score, to Roger Deakins’ snow blinding cinematography, to McDormand’s breakout performance, everything comes together perfectly in FARGO to make one of the most memorable and most human crime tales ever told.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, 2007
The Coens got serious with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Up until the release of this film, which is based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, they were recognized for their talents as both writer and directors, but many people saw their work as often exaggerated and unrealistic. They had also lost their way in the years leading up to it with career missteps that looked to be derailing them entirely (THE LADYKILLERS anyone?). NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a triumphant return that also marked the biggest leap they had ever made as filmmakers. Josh Brolin stars as Llewelyn Moss, a West Texas man who witnesses a drug deal gone bad and makes off with two million dollars. Academy Award winner, Javier Bardem, is Anton Chigurh, the hit man hired to retrieve the money. As strong as Brolin is in this comeback performance, this is Bardem’s movie. Chigurh is incredibly disturbing and even more difficult to forget. He is a calculated man who can anticipate his prey’s every move, but yet will leave many a moment of truth completely up to chance. The Coens cultivate NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN into an eerily quiet, intense nail biter of a cat and mouse game. This is considered by many to be their finest film and it is easy to see why.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, 2000
One could argue that taking on the task of adapting Homer’s “Odyssey” to film is an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. Heck, I’ve even argued that when it comes to O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, the Coen Brothers first collaboration with George Clooney, and the perfect musical precursor to the upcoming, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Initially, I did not connect with this film at all, other than to the music, that is. I found it difficult to follow and often forced, despite moments of true beauty (the siren scene by the river comes to mind immediately). Upon subsequent viewings though, I found myself more and more drawn to its mystery and spirit. The journey takes Clooney and his two cohorts (Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro) to so many seemingly disconnected places that it felt as though there was no direction and no clear destination in site. This only further reinforces that it isn’t about the destination though and when the journey itself is this beautiful to both look at and hear, who cares about the destination anyway?
RAISING ARIZONA, 1987
The Coen Brothers followed up their debut, BLOOD SIMPLE, a neo-noir crime film, with a zany comedy called RAISING ARIZONA. The film is filled with colorful, larger than life characters, the kind that people would associate with the Coens for some time afterward. It’s a love story really, one that examines whether love can ever be enough and questions whether having children is either a blessing or a curse for longer term couples. Hi (Nicolas Cage) meets Ed (Holly Hunter) when she takes his mugshot photo. After Hi gets arrested a few more times and works up the nerve to ask Ed out, it isn’t long before they’re married and thinking about having kids. The trouble is that they can’t conceive and they are faced with an empty hole in their hearts that only kidnapping a child can fill. They opt to steal one child from a family that just famously had quintuplets, believing that they certainly won’t miss just one, and they form a happy family from there. Of course, they soon discover that this scenario isn’t necessarily any better than before they stole the baby. Cage and Hunter are hysterical together in this film and provide some unexpected grounding in an otherwise outrageous film.
A SERIOUS MAN, 2009
Considering family is always behind the camera, it is strange that the Coens had never dealt so directly with their own family experience and upbringing before A SERIOUS MAN. This isn’t exactly an autobiography but they have described it as containing more influence from their childhood than anything else they’ve ever done. It is also the most Jewish of any of their films, which may have been the reason that it remains one of their more obscure titles. Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnick, a man whose bad luck puts everyone else’s to shame. We watch, and cringe, as Larry’s family falls apart, as he runs into trouble at work, and as Columbia House harasses him for an overdue payment. Throughout this downward spiral, he begins to question his faith. As Larry searches for answers, his life takes an unexpected path that not even he fully understands, begging the question, is he actually cursed? A SERIOUS MAN is quite a playful film and while it may have taken a long time for the Coen Brothers to fully face their past on film, it provided a great deal of insight to them in the process.