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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Essentials: The Coen Bros

Ever been interested in a particular subject but never sure where to really start in building that initial collection? We've been there, and now we're here to help! With 'The Essentials', we'll dig into a particular director, writer, actor, artist, etc and give you five of their "must-have" works as we see it and a place for you to begin if you're starting at ground zero.

The Coen Brothers are generally thought of as one of most interesting, exciting, and reliable filmmaking forces in the studio system today. Anytime they release a new film, it's a reason to sit up and take notice. With their quirky characters, allegorical plots, and dark humor, The Coens continue to produce some of the most consistently great filmmaking a cinemaphile can find in the offering, with only a few real lulls in their filmography.

With only five films to choose from such a rich catalog, where do you even begin? By looking at their career from beginning to end and trying to find any patterns that could lend itself to informing their films that came in the future. Not a simple task!

Let me get one omission out of the way first, I regret that I can't include Raising Arizona in this list. It has nothing to do with the quality of the film, which is stunning, and everything to do with the level of greatness (in my mind) of the films that followed it. Needless to say, if I had six films to pick from, I'd pick that one as my number six, particularly for its importance as the "first great Coen film". But I don't, so I can't.

One thing I know for sure, your choices in this kind of list say alot about your personal taste, particularly given the wide range of styles they've worked within. I'd hate to know what my list may reveal about me. 

Barton Fink
The creative process is a difficult thing to wrap your head around: what is it that makes a writer tick and how do we overcome writer's block? Barton Fink is arguably the most consistently rewarding film of the Coen Brothers entire oeuvre, with its puzzle box nature and endless symbolism. In many ways it was as close to a "Kubrickian" style film as the Coens would ever come, as their script tackles Fascism, Hollywood, Writing, Religion and Slavery all within the boundaries of the scariest hotel this side of The Shining. Also of note, this is the first film that featured the Coens long-running collaboration with Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who "next-level" lensing pulled the brothers away from their psuedo-Sam Raimi style and into something more fully formed. On top of that, this is one of the few leading performances of John Turturro's career as the title character, oh and it won't the Palme d'Or at that 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Not a bad place to start that collection!

If you were to ask the majority of the people what their favorite Coen films are, you'll get a smattering of answers, but there's a distinct likelihood that the majority opinion might be focused towards their 1996 tale of murder in the icy landscape of Minnesota.  Everything the Coen's had been building to throughout this early portion of their career (Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, the aforementioned Barton Fink) culminated in this achievement. It's also a strangely hopeful film, given the darker passages they travailed in before, highlighting the astute goodness of humanity in its central protagonist Marge Gunderson. That doesn't mean it's not also a bit of a bloodbath in places, with one of the Coens most sadistic characters in Gaear Grimsrud taking the center stage in terms of viciousness, never to really be outshone until their 2007 entry. The script is brilliantly constructed, the characterizations are incredibly compelling (leading a viewer to question who the lead really is, if there is one), and the sheer indie streak running through the film is unique for a big studio product. This was the first of the Coen's output to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Frances McDormand nabbed the award for Best Actress (along with a Best Original Screenplay win for the Coens themselves), making Fargo a landmark prestige entry and a must own.

The Big Lebowski
The follow-up to Fargo, at that point a new apex for their career as filmmakers, led the Coen's down the path of Raymond Chandler, LA Nightlife, Bowling, White Russians, nihilism, and mistaken identity. It also was a bit of a flop commercially and about as far away from Fargo as one could get in a follow-up. Let's put it this way, The Big Lebowski features Jeff Bridges' career defining performance, as well as one of the most memorable sequences John Goodman has ever been involved in ("this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!"), and has engendered a big enough cult following that there's an entire fest, "Lebowsi-Fest", that is centered on the antics of the film taking place every year. If Barton Fink is the Coen's answer to The Shining, I'd argue that The Big Lebowski is their spin on Chinatown, but with a rug that ties everything together.

No Country for Old Men
After seeing this film in a theater back in its initial release in 2007, I was, for lack of a better term, "knocked on my ass". Between the cult classic Lebowski and this Best Picture winning modern day showdown western, the Coens had flirted with and won mass popular appeal (O Brother Where Art Thou) and also made some of the least regarded films of their career (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers). So it came a bit of a shock to me that this adaptation of one of Cormac McCarthy's pulpiest novels would affect me so. As it turns out, this film was the start of a new renaissance in their career and returning them to the "perennial Oscar favorite" status that they seemed destined for post-Fargo. Much like that well-crafted tale of murder, this has one of their tightest scripts focused on the game of cat and mouse between Llewlyn Moss and Anton Chigurh, a walking version of Death incarnate (winning Javier Bardem the Best Supporting Actor prize that year), while the soon to retire, laconic Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is on both of their trails. It's a tale of how mistakes made can come back to haunt us, and the blood shed that can ensue due to something as simple as greed. No Country for Old Men is in my Top 10 Films of All Time, and is my argument for the finest film of the Coen Brothers career.

A Serious Man
Here's where my personal opinion takes over, many people will make the argument that this film is "lesser Coens", while others will state that this is their best constructed comedy. I'm of the mind of that latter opinion. A Serious Man is probably the most personal film the Coens have made since Barton Fink, as it delves into the Jewish faith and perhaps some level of personal experience learning the Torah while growing up in the 1950's. It also is a period reinterpretation of The Book of Job, while utilizing concepts like "Shrodinger's cat" and the idea that when it comes to puzzle box narratives we should often "accept the mystery". It features career-making performances for Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Fred Melamed. A Serious Man is also fittingly hilarious and tragic at the same time and the film's enigmatic ending makes it a perfect companion piece to No Country for Old Men, while its mysterious narrative (with alot of "did or didn't" type questions) and personal nature allow it to be a fitting bookend to Barton Fink.

Agree? Disagree? Feel like we omitted your favorite? Let us know! Just to give you an idea of how diverse the possible choices might be, here are some choices from our friends on Twitter when asked: 
"What 5 Coen Bros. films would you choose as "must-haves" if someone were a collection?"


No Country, Lebowski, Burn After Reading, O, Brother and True Grit. Admittedly not seen all their 90s movies

these are my favorites: Burn after reading, Intolerable Cruelty, True Grit, Fargo and Big Lebowski

No Country, Burn After Reading, Fargo, Raising Arizona, Big Lebowski.

The Big Lebowski is a must. Preferably the special edition. Then No Country, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man, and Barton Fink.

Big Lebowski, Fargo, No country for old men, the hudsucker proxy and a serious man

Lebowski, O Brother, Fargo, No Country, True Grit

Fargo (by far), O Brother, No Country, True Grit, Barton Fink. This list was hard as hell to narrow down.

A huge thanks to everyone that contributed their thoughts! As you can see, no one can agree on just one list, happy shopping!

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