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The Films Of The Coen Brothers: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 4, 2013 at 11:32AM

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.
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Barton Fink

“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]   

Hudsucker Proxy

“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]

Fargo Frances McDormand

“Fargo” (1996) 

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

“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]

This article is related to: Features, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Essentials


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