In honour of producer, writer and director Joel Coen's 63rd birthday, we talk about the famous Coen Brothers' five greatest movies.
In the Coens' greatest moments of satire and chaos, the American Idiots around which the action happens aren’t vilified for their idiocy. In fact, they’re celebrated, to prove to us that we’re all just like them. People are stupid, and the Coens love them.
Sometimes, they’re screwballs in their own riotous cartoon: characters like H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, or Hail Caesar!’s Hobie Doyle. Other times the idiot is a lot closer to home. At a certain point, we realise that we are the same idiot, deep down. It’s in the 30-something aimlessness of Llewyn Davis, the love-struck madness of Intolerable Cruelty’s Miles Massey, or the mid-life crisis of A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik.
The Coens can do either, and that’s what makes them so great. There’s barely a weak film in their 33-year career. Almost every one of them is somebody’s favourite. So here goes nothing: the five best films the Coens have made thus far.
5) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Coens are skilled at taking attractive actors and making them wildly unattractive in a pinch. But arguably their finest attempt at this is George Clooney’s beatnik Ulysses Everett McGill, the leader of a trio of escaped convicts. In the brothers’ adaptation of The Odyssey, he is their Odysseus, the lead in a strange, wonderful fable that could only have come from the Coens.
O Brother finds joy in its own existence, wringing every last drop of freewheeling elation from its soundtrack, its lovable caricatures, and its sprawling narrative. It might be the happiest film the Coens ever made.
It took me a while with Fargo. I found it hard to give myself to its much less obvious cinematic pleasures, having been enamoured with the more black-and-white drama of No Country For Old Men or clear-cut comedy of O Brother. But Fargo is better than the sum of its parts.
It’s the combination of some exquisitely pathetic characters and a hard-boiled crime story that makes fools of everyone involved, save for Frances McDormand’s near-perfect Marge Gunderson. Each sequence is pitched to conform to a specific genre (crime-thriller, comedy, drama, romance), but the whole piece is of its own kind. Distinctive, highly original in tone, it’s the definitive film about the Midwestern identity in the United States; it may even be the most definitive Coen film.
3) The Big Lebowski (1998)
I’ve probably seen this movie more times than any other. It’s my cinematic comfort food for reasons I can’t fully explain. Perhaps it’s the script that seems to write itself. Maybe it’s the immortal creations of The Dude and Walter. Could it even be the West Coast-cosiness of the whole affair?
What The Big Lebowski has always been about, for me, is the idea that everyone in the movie is living in a broken-down husk of what Los Angeles used to be, but none of them seem to care. The cheesiest, seediest parts of the city – bowling alleys, LA bungalows – become charming when viewed through the Coens' lens of “This is just how it is.” A recurring theme throughout their work, and precisely what makes them the best American filmmakers of their generation, it was rarely better-realised than here.
2) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
It takes a certain amount of maturity to make a movie about a deadbeat – the Coens’ favourite kind of person – and make us feel sorry for the deadbeat. Yes, Llewyn Davis is a terrible, irresponsible person. But he lives in a cruel world, seemingly caught inside a faded sepia photograph where nothing can make him whole again.
The film’s finest achievements are to capture the monotony of musician’s lives closer than most other films would dare to, and to make captivating the life of a character whose primary motivation is to exist. It’s minutiae cinema at its finest, where the smallest events mean the world to the audience. Like Fargo, it’s arguably a sum piece, comprised of smaller elements that mean nothing on their own but have the weight of the world when considered together. I think the Coens’ point here might have been: “That’s life, guys.”
1) No Country For Old Men (2007)
Up to this point, the Coens wanted to paint a picture of America where even its worst corners could be made fun of. The ethos was, “Ain’t the world a peculiar place sometimes?” But here, the dark heart of America is laid bare without remorse. It’s the pitch-black flipside of Marge Gunderson’s “All for a little money” speech at the end of Fargo, writ large.
It’s also probably their most cynical movie. There doesn’t seem to be any redemption for Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, an idiot whose stupidity is made all the more tragic when we realise that we might have done exactly the same thing: take the money and run.
He’s a pathetic character just as much as those populating Fargo. But the difference is we can laugh at those in Fargo, because nearly all of them are the bad guys. Here, our sole good guy, Tommy Lee Jones’ world-weary Sherriff Ed Tom, can’t even seem to save himself from existential dread, let alone Moss from the talons of the most pure and distilled evil in any film for the last twenty years: Javier Bardem’s horrifying Anton Chigurh.
The film plays like a sweeping cat-and-mouse game where the stakes are nothing less than faith in the good of humanity, whilst simultaneously being a perfect thriller, filled with disquieting moments of pure tension that take your breath away. In what was one of the best years for American cinema since the 70s, No Country remains the Coens’ greatest achievement.