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The Films Of The Coen Brothers: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
December 4, 2013 11:32 AM
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True Grit

“True Grit” (2010)
Every so often in their career, the Coens transform themselves into the unlikeliest of crowd-pleasers, crafting sizable, audience-friendly hits while maintaining their oddball allure and idiosyncratic directorial flourishes. "True Grit" was their last such success, bringing in more than $250 million at the box office and scoring a whopping ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for the Coens. While the brothers claimed in interviews before the film's release that it would be a new adaptation of Charles Portis' novel and not a straight remake of the 1969 western, there are a bunch of things the Coens borrow from the original film, including Rooster Cogburn's eye patch, worn lovingly this time around by Coen alum Jeff Bridges, who turns grizzled scowling into an artform. Also along for the ride were Coens discovery Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl seeking revenge for the murder of her father, first time collaborator Matt Damon (who engages with the material fully, to the point that you wonder why they haven't hired him again, though we guess they have only made one film since) and "No Country for Old Men" MVP Josh Brolin, here playing the murderous outlaw. Formally, "True Grit" is unparalleled, with Roger Deakins' cinematography reaching otherworldly levels of grandeur, but the reasons audiences and critics responded so enthusiastically to the film is how heartfelt and warm it is. You actually feel for the characters, in a way that many of the Coens movies sidestep altogether. "True Grit" was a testament to the fact that the Coens are capable of anything, even a good, old-fashioned crowd pleaser. [A-]

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
If the Ernest Hemingway quote “you make your own luck” is true, then Llewyn Davis, the titular character of the Coen Brothers' masterful, comedic and bitter '60s folk scene picture "Inside Llewyn Davis," is someone who unknowingly sabotages whatever remnants of good fortune he has at every turn. Loosely based on the story of Greenwich village folkie Dave Van Ronk who saw his popularity never quite catch on once Dylan arrived on the scene, the Coens take this basic idea and leverage it as a jumping off point to explore failure (the successful rock star story having been told the world over). The Coens, having deftly realized in recent years that life is a matter of fact, cruel, tragic comedy, almost let this character lose in the milieu of this world, watching him fuck up every opportunity he's presented. Anchored by Oscar Isaac's terrific, awards-worthy performance, he imbues Llewyn Davis with an artistic integrity that becomes a noose. It doesn't help the character is a bit of a bonafide asshole. But it's a testament to the actors and filmmakers that we still empathize with the character's attraction to self-destruction, whether it's fucking his best friend's girlfriend or the colossal miscalculation of playing a depressing song about abortion at his first big break audition. Ultimately, though surely not their intention, the Coens create a funny and morose cautionary tale about artistic endeavors: it doesn't matter how talented you are if you're your own worst enemy. Chance, fate and good timing are nice, but what makes a memorable loser, is indeed, practice. [A]

Honorable Mentions: For the Coens completists, there's a few other movies that they were involved with, but didn't direct. With pal Sam Raimi, they co-wrote "Crimewave," a wildly uneven, but enjoyable cartoonish satire that Raimi directed between "Evil Dead" movies. The pair also produced "Down With The Mountain," a concert movie based around the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, and exec-ed on John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes," an ambitious musical that's better than its reputation, but still a long way from a success.

The brothers also got an executive producer credit on Terry Zwigoff's season classic "Bad Santa," having done uncredited work on the script (fact fans note, they also did an uncredited polish on the Judd Apatow-produced Jim Carrey vehicle "Fun With Dick & Jane"). Finally, Zhang Yimou remade "Blood Simple" in 2009 as "A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop," while the Coens picked up a rare writing-only paycheck for "Gambit," the 2012 remake of the 1960s caper classic, starring Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. Eventually directed by Michael Hoffman, it's a film so bad that it makes "The Ladykillers" look like "A Serious Man," and it's little wonder that, a year on from its UK release, the film is still awaiting a U.S. date. Hopefully their scripting work on "Unbroken," Angelina Jolie's true-life survival tale that should be an awards player this time next year, will work out better.

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  • Alex Krajci | December 31, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    1996's Fargo And 1998's The Big Lebowski Are Two Of My Favorite Films.

  • Pavan | December 13, 2013 1:40 AMReply

    There are the Coens. And then there's the rest.

    It's odd that A Serious Man is my favorite movie of the Coens. There are much better movies of course, but, A Serious Man just stuck with me.

    Cannot wait to watch Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm especially curious to watch the classy Carey Mulligan in a Coen movie. I'd never thought anything like that would happen.

  • Jason | December 8, 2013 12:22 AMReply

    I feel like the writer of this retrospective purposely ignored Steve Buscemi. He was in Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski and is fantastic in all three. How can anyone forget "Shut the f**k up, Donny! You're out of your element."? He only played a pivotal role in Fargo but he certainly made a significant impact on all three films.

  • Serena | December 5, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    To add to the Big Lebowski cult, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there's the Lebowski Bar. They really went all-out, with a sideways bowling alley on the walls, stills from the film, a food menu corresponding to the characters (I think the chicken wings are called The Nihilists) and of course a White Russian menu of drinks. All the Americans plus the Game of Thrones crew went there.

  • alphabet | December 4, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    Special recognition must be given to the 13-minute prologue in Raising Arizona, an amazing work in its own right, and perhaps the greatest all-time whistlin-dixie use of Beethoven's 9th via banjo.

  • wes | December 4, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    Raise Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and The Ladykillers.
    Lower Miller's Crossing.
    Then it's good.

  • Trevor | December 4, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    It's "A Serious Man." Not "A Simple Man."

  • hank | December 4, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    regarding those "clowns at the academy" ... they actually gave the coens a couple of those silly statues years earlier for writing FARGO.

  • scott taylor | December 30, 2013 1:57 PM

    if you have to ask who the clown is usually yourself

  • Liam | December 20, 2013 12:16 AM

    Dios mio man - don't you know a Lebowski reference when you see one?

  • hank | December 4, 2013 6:15 PM

    whose the clown.

  • Brad | December 4, 2013 4:33 PMReply

    The Coen's have always been between my favorite filmmakers but reading this list and catching "O Brother Where Art Thou" on Amc by coincidence a couple of days ago made me realize how great they are. I think my favorite 3 films are "A Serious Man", "No Country for old men" and "Fargo". I can't wait to see " Inside LLewyn Davis"
    Great Retrospective!!!!

  • Cory Everett | December 5, 2013 1:59 PM

    No, Sanjuro. Just no.

  • sanjuro | December 4, 2013 5:17 PM

    Ladykillers is a brilliant film. Their 2nd best film of the last decade after No Country for Old Men.

  • gee i wonder who wrote this comment | December 4, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Climates was Ceylan's fourth feature.

  • FYI | December 4, 2013 7:02 PM

    They called it his 2nd in the short, fyi.

  • Jake Bart | December 4, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    I may be crazy, but I think BURN AFTER READING is worthy of much higher than a B. I think it's funnier than O BROTHER, HUDSUCKER, and even RAISING ARIZONA.

  • jonnybon | December 5, 2013 7:09 PM

    Burn After Reading is my favorite Coen comedy. A+

  • cory everett | December 4, 2013 3:01 PM

    You are crazy. RAISING ARIZONA 4ever.

  • Xian | December 4, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    "clowns at the Academy" = Their peers.

  • Rob | December 4, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    A near perfect career. That's why they're the best.

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