Movies

‘Big Lebowski’ to ‘True Grit’: Reviewing all 15 Coen movies

Joel and Ethan Coen have co-written, co-directed, and in some cases, co-produced and co-edited 15 mostly incredible feature-length films. Some are straight comedies, some are based on novels and religious texts, and others are remakes of earlier films or stage plays. Most are darkly humorous, and certainly some are better than others. To commemorate the Dec. 20 release of the brothers’ latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I camped out in my living room in my “The Dude” sweater and watched the Coens’ full filmography.

1. "Blood Simple" (1984)
John Getz plays a bartender in the Coens’ neo-noir tribute. I’ve never been a huge fan of film noir, and I’m even less of a fan of neo-noir (don’t even talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Brick"), but this film felt original even as an homage to a specific genre. Each plot twist caught me by surprise and Frances McDormand stabbing a guy in the hand was a welcome sight. Felt a little like a film you’d discuss with your grandfather on the phone.
2. "Raising Arizona" (1987)
Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, two of my favorite actors, play a white-trash couple who kidnap a baby from a furniture tycoon. The anxious, humorous tone works well here, and the colors and costuming are both on point. The action sequences and shady intrigue aren’t distracting because the main plot, based around family and finding one’s peace, is strong enough to bind the whole thing together. Cage and Hunter share memorable dialogue and the low-class characters are given emotional depth instead of becoming flat satirical archetypes. The final dream sequence feels in tune with the rest of the Coen canon and the whole movie is just pure fun to watch.
3. "Miller's Crossing" (1990)
Gabriel Byrne stars as a conflicted gangster-by-association during Prohibition. He navigates the conflicts between an Irish and Italian-American gang. Although 1930s gangsters have been exhausted by films and TV, I think a lot of works like "Boardwalk Empire" owe their core values to "Miller's Crossing." Marcia Gay Harden is well-cast as fiery Verna, although I still associate her with "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." In fact, many of the talented actors from this film went on to find careers in formulaic, dramatic television, and I'm not sure if that's a disservice to them or not. John Polito steals a few scenes as Italian Johnny Caspar. I'd recommend this film if you're one of those people who wishes they could wear a fedora, but is "cool" enough to realize that they shouldn't.
4. "Barton Fink" (1991)
John Turturro plays a neurotic playwright commissioned to pen a screenplay in L.A. Here, the Coens experiment with layered sound and repetitive images, which is a little dizzying. "Barton Fink" feels the closest to a Coen brothers' psychological thriller, because their main character’s suspicions make everything around him look shadowed and ominous. The Hotel Earle is a character in itself and John Goodman performs well as a big ol’ creep. This one made me anxious.
5. "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994)
Tim Robbins plays a former business student whose hair inexplicably looks like a wig. Corporate hijinks occur around him and there are a lot of scenes that take place in a mailroom that has steam billowing through it for unexplained reasons. This feels like "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" but with no music and more muted colors. Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead") co-wrote the script but I wish he had come up with some of the visual gags. To be honest, I dozed off halfway through. Turns out, it bombed at the box office and didn’t do well with critics upon its release. This was one of Paul Newman’s worst movies ever. That's a true shame.
6. "Fargo" (1996)
Frances McDormand plays a midwestern detective tracking down hired kidnapping goons. Joel and Ethan Coen love to write plots involving five or six characters who are associated through similar trauma. Sometimes it feels heavy-handed, but in films like "Fargo," it’s downright Shakespearean. Fargo features Steve Buscemi as Carl, in one of my favorite roles, and the film uses his comedic brand of anger well. Any time you get Buscemi yelling, “Oh, for Chrissake,” you’re probably doing something well. McDormand is charming and talented, the North Dakota accents are fun to imitate, and (spoiler alert) Buscemi gets thrown into a woodchipper. All good fun. This is also a great movie for Boston winters, to remind you why it’s better to stay inside. The film brought the Coens their first shared Oscar, for writing.
7. "The Big Lebowski" (1998)
Jeff Bridges plays Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, a chilled out guy in L.A. who runs into some serious shit, man. Every male college student in the country has this poster on his dorm room wall, next to Bob Marley and that neon “Invincible Summer” poster. Even with the cliches, "The Big Lebowski" is still one of the most exciting Coen films to date. There’s just nothing like those swirling, trippy musical sequences, and the scenes that unfold in the bowling alley feel like masterful filmmaking, both emotionally engaging and satisfyingly silly. High points include Steve Buscemi’s idiotic Donny, Julianne Moore’s “strongly vaginal” artwork, and John Turturro licking a bowling ball. This film is unbelievable.
8. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)
George Clooney stars in a contemporary take on "The Odyssey," set in Depression-era Mississippi. For most moviegoers, this is the gateway drug to the Coen brothers’ work, because the catchy, twangy bluegrass soundtrack carries the viewer through all the meandering plotlines. Race is handled with more grace and humor here, maybe because the KKK is the perfect villain for these directors. They like their bad guys to be so evil that the effect of watching them hatch their plots onscreen is almost comedic. Could there really be people so ridiculously awful? If, for some reason, you haven’t heard "Man of Constant Sorrow" from this soundtrack, you need to look it up right now. I would also argue that "O Brother" has some of the best dialogue in the Coen canon. Watch it, and you’ll understand how John Turturro turned “do not seek the treasure” into one of the funniest lines.
9. "The Man Who Wasn’t There" (2001)
Billy Bob Thornton stars in the Coen brothers’ most potently technical film as a barber who might be hiding something. Watching this felt like the first time I read Camus’ "The Stranger," as I wasn’t sure how to feel about the protagonist and even by the end of the film, I didn’t know who I was rooting for. James Gandolfini and Scarlett Johannsen play small roles, while Tony Shaloub seems to struggle with his period-piece dialogue. It's like he’s doing an impression of a film noir character he might have watched one time, years ago. Not a great deal of humor here, but the plot moves pretty quickly.
10. "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003)
This one is mostly about rich people and divorce. I’ll admit I wasn’t excited to watch it, because the poster looks like your average rom-com set-up, with a handsome man and sexy woman smirking at each other in front of some Photoshop backdrop. It was billed as a black comedy but it feels more like something Cary Grant would have starred in, had the Coen brothers been making movies in the early '50s. The problem is, no one wants to see George Clooney play a Cary Grant role, unless you’re one of those folks who’s really, really into the "Oceans 11" franchise. I also don’t think I’m bitter enough to feel warm and fuzzy about a romance that ends in one party signing a pre-nup. I’ll watch this again in 15 years and recalibrate. Still not sure why Catherine Zeta-Jones is famous.
11. "The Ladykillers" (2004)
A band of thieves, headed by a charming con-man who looks like Colonel Sanders, moves into an old woman’s house by pretending to be a church band. This was heavy on the weird vibes and a little low on the fun. I confess that I have a soft spot for Tom Hanks and I allow him every weird tangent role he wants to take. I also spent a decade confusing this movie with "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman," so I was disappointed that it wasn’t a superhero movie. The Coen brothers don’t address race often in their films, and even here it’s only scratched, placing Southern Tom Hanks opposite Irma P. Hall, who I recognized as Joletta from 1998’s "Patch Adams" (she's great). However, the most interesting thing about this film is watching a Wayans brother get slapped repeatedly.
12. "No Country for Old Men" (2007)
I assume the Coens took the previous three years to shake off their losing streak and produce this masterpiece. Javier Bardem plays the scariest man to ever wear a black bobbed wig in this Western thriller based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. Unlike Coen comedies, "No Country for Old Men" affords most characters interesting backstories and places the action in a town with a long, dark history that the viewer can feel. It’s no wonder American audiences are obsessed with films and TV shows about serial killers; watching Bardem strangle his victims and decide their fates by flipping a coin is deeply entertaining. This is a must-watch that won best picture, best director, and best writing Oscars.
13. "Burn After Reading" (2008)
Two idiotic fitness center employees find the memoirs of a ex-CIA agent and attempt to blackmail him. I saw this in theaters because I’ll frankly see anything directed by these guys. Everyone I went with hated it, but I think it’s one of the Coens most successful comedies. Brad Pitt is somehow hilarious and gut-wrenchingly sad, and George Clooney’s homemade basement dildo machine (side note: did you ever think you’d read a phrase like that?) sticks in your brain. Coen-written dialogue again rolls so well out of Frances McDormand and John Malkovich is at his creepiest and most engrossing.
14. "A Serious Man" (2009)
Michael Stuhlbarg (of "Boardwalk Empire" fame) plays Larry Gopnik, a math professor whose life is falling apart around him. I love, love, love this film, and not just because I appreciate the parallels to the book of Job in the Torah. This is the first Jewish film made by the Coens, and I agree with the critics who call it their most “grown up” project. Everything from the film’s rhythm in sound effects and pregnant pauses between lines of dialogue, to the costuming and interior sets is working together to create this perfect picture of Midwestern depression. Larry speaking to his rabbis about his existential dread is wonderfully watchable, and the Coens create another hilarious villain in Sy Ableman, the testosterone-fueled goon who cuckolds Larry. Incredible.
15. "True Grit" (2010)
Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon star in this Western thriller, alongside Hailee Steinfeld in her breakout role. Some of the Coens’ work can feel exhausting because they’re attempting to keep many moving parts well-oiled and effective, but films like "True Grit" work because of their simplicity. This film values tense scenes of violence and the use of blood isn’t hyperbolic. It’s one of the Coens’ few films to deal with concepts like honor and pride without sarcasm, and the final scenes give the film a deep sense of cathartic completion that some of the other Coen films lack. This is the highest-grossing Coen brothers film to date, and it set the standard for upcoming projects.

Posted to Movies