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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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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.

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


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