Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

This week, to coincide with the release of the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis," Cine-List looks at the world of underpaid and over-passionate artists in film.

1. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (in theaters December 6, limited; December 20, wide). The Coens’ portrait of the early ‘60s folk music scene in New York may be their most poignant film to date, despite taking some dark and pitiless detours. Cynical musician Llewyn Davis (a just-right Oscar Isaac) is well-known among his community of artists. But he’s reeling emotionally and professionally from the suicide of his singing partner, and alienating his contemporaries with his fuck-it attitude (not to mention his ability to impregnate). Llewyn’s got talent, but as F. Murray Abraham tells him bluntly at a key moment: “I don’t hear much money in it.” The film’s music--supervised by Coens regular T-Bone Burnett-- is hypnotic, and the cast is superb. Carey Mulligan is mad as hell and resigned to keep taking it, while John Goodman steals the show as a Doc Pomus-esque blues man whose nightly routine consists of burping up insults and overdosing. And then there’s that pesky marmalade cat -- Llewyn’s unlikely travel partner and the ghost that haunts the narrative. One of the best films of the year.

Withnail and I

2. “Withnail & I” (1987, streaming). Bruce Robinson’s black comedy centered on two frustrated, booze and drug-addled London actors who hightail it to the countryside has cult status in Britain, if not as well-known stateside. Despite centering on thespians who can’t land a gig to pay the rent (or who are so affronted by offers of -- gasp! -- being an understudy that they alienate their own agents), the film is a winning showpiece for the acting chops of pop-eyed Richard E. Grant, as Withnail, and fine-boned Paul McGann, as Marwood. (Both, incidentally, have gone on to play Doctor Who.) Of course, Withnail and Marwood’s sojourn in the country drives them crazier than they were when cooped up in their putrid apartment. The arrival of gay Uncle Monty (a hilarious Richard Griffiths), who takes a shine to Marwood, only causes more trouble.

3. “Sunset Boulevard” (1950, streaming). Pick your poison: Down and out, or washed up? These two depressing points on the failed artist spectrum collide with acidic vigor in Billy Wilder’s showbiz noir “Sunset Boulevard.” William Holden stars as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis, who becomes a lodger Chez Norma Desmond (a terrific Gloria Swanson), a faded movie star who sucks him into her bitter orbit. Desmond lives in an atrophying LA mansion with the one person who still appreciates her, loyal butler and first husband Max Von Mayerling (played by silent film director Erich Von Stroheim in a canny bit of casting). All around a classic, and notable for its narration by a deceased character.

Cutie and the Boxer

4. “Cutie and the Boxer” (2013, streaming). Zachary Heinzerling’s gorgeous documentary ode to the troubled passions of aging Japanese artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara is one of the bright spots of film in 2013. The couple, who eke out a humble living in New York despite being respected in the art community, have various demons to contend with. Ushio, now in his eighties, never achieved the status he dreamed of; Noriko, decades younger than her husband, has lived in his shadow for years, squashing her own artistic goals as she bore an unplanned child and dealt with Ushio’s drama and drunkenness. Now she plans her own art show, tellingly centered around two characters: the meek, wistful Cutie, and the domineering, savage Boxer. Heinzerling’s formal abilities as a director are as artistically astute as the subjects he films.

5. “La Vie de Boheme” (1992, heading to Criterion). Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki turns his attentions to the Parisian bohemian lifestyle in this black-and-white tragicomedy. Three impoverished artists -- a French poet (Andre Wilms), an Albanian painter (Matti Pellonpaa), and an Irish composer (Kari Vaananen) -- in the City of Lights form a trifecta to help each other keep the wolves from the door. Pellonpaa is the hilarious standout as the long-faced Albanian who meets the love of his life only to be then deported back to his home country. Kaurismaki keeps the oddball humor at a good clip, and then skillfully transitions into the film’s surprisingly bittersweet ending.

Satan's Brew

6. “Satan’s Brew” (1976). Rainer Werner Fassbinder goes madcap in what could be argued as the director’s sole flat-out comedy. Kurt Raab stars as anarchist poet Walter Kranz, whose publisher stiffs him on an advance. In need of quick cash, Walter turns to his slew of mistresses. Things go from bad to worse when Walter blatantly plagiarizes a famous German poet, and becomes convinced he’s the poet’s reincarnation. Has it been mentioned that Walter’s got a screeching wife at home, as well as a brother who wants to have sex with houseflies? Fassbinder controls the madness deftly, with DP Michael Ballhaus (later Scorsese’s cinematographer) giving the proceedings a formal elegance.

Trailers and clips, after the jump.