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The 8 Ball 12.03.13: Top 8 Coen Brothers Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 12.03.2013

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Coen Brothers Films

Welcome back to the 8 Ball, ladies and gentlemen! This week the Coen Brothers' latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, makes its limited release bow before the inevitable expansion. The film is already garnering a lot of awards buzz and the subject, a fictional take on the 1960s folk scene, has the potential to make it one of my favorite Coen Brothers films to date. But that is some hefty competition for them; with fifteen directorial efforts to their resumes to date between the Joel-directed ones earlier in their career and the jointly-directed ones after 2003, they have an incredible track record with only a few falters. With that in mind, this week I thought we could look at the best that the brothers have given us to date.

Caveat: Simple criteria this week: if it was a film that Joel and Ethan (or just Joel) is credited with directing, it was eligible. The only caveat is that I left off films that they only directed a portion of such as Paris, je t'aime. Other than that, sky's the limit!

Just Missing The Cut

A Serious Man (2009)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Burn After Reading (2008)
Barton Fink (1991)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

#8: Miller's Crossing (1990)

The fact that Miller's Crossing comes in at #8 shows you the strength of the Coen Brothers' filmography, because this is a great film. It's even better when you consider than this was only Joel Coen's third film he had ever directed. This delicious little piece of neo-noir gangster film-making features a script which may not quite be their best (which is not to say it is bad, merely not up to their usual snuff), but the inspired direction by Joel and the performances by Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro and Marcia Gay Harden make up for that. The film stars Byrne as Tom Reagan, the confident of political boss Leo O'Bannon during the Prohibition era. When a war breaks out between Leo and Jon Polito's Johnny Caspar over a bookie (Turturro) and his sister (Harden)--the latter of whom is involved with Leo--Tom tries to talk his long-time boss into seeing the truth of the matter. One of the things I love so much about the Coens is their love of noir and this contains all of those signature elements, updated into a new package the way that some of the best filmmakers Hollywood has had to offer can only dream of. Miller's Crossing may sit in the bottom half of the Coens' resume, but it is still heads and tails ahead of most of its contemporaries.

#7: Blood Simple (1984)

Another fun little neo-noir piece, Blood Simple has the sensibility of Miller's Crossing with the added bonus of some more power in the script and a stronger visual palette. This is the film which introduced not only the Coen Brothers to filmgoers, but Frances McDormand as well. McDormand is great in her role here and gives one of her best performances to date while M. Emmet Walsh steals the film as the sleazy and psychotic yet charming private eye Loren Visser. Dan Hedaya's villainous husband is likewise well-done and John Getz is wonderfully in over his head as Ray, the man with whom McDormand's Abby is having an affair. With this film the Coens made a film which is quite self-aware and revels in its genre conventions, but that also isn't afraid to twist things on its head nicely at times. The final shot makes a great statement for the film as a whole, a simple design that has been gloriously twisted into something funny and horrifying. Blood Simple is the prototypical Coen Brothers film and contains many of the elements which would be popularized by them, so much so that there is a wonderful tabletop game known as "Fiasco" which can basically be described as "role-playing your way through your own Coen movie."

#6: The Big Lebowski (1998)

I know, I know...it's sacrilege to put the Dude this low, but the truth is his movie is not one of my favorite Coen films by a long shot. I also know that in a lot of ways I stand alone in that; The Big Lebowski is popularly recognized as one of the brothers' greatest movies. It's certainly, along with Raising Arizona, the one with the most ardent fans. I simply feel that Lebowski pushes Joel and Ethan's oddball style further than it needs to be and thus makes it less enjoyable of a film than some of their other ones. That, however, is not to say it is a bad movie by any stretch. Jeff Bridges excels in what is probably his most iconic role to date and John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and the rest are all great in their roles. The plot is over-the-top and while I again think it goes a bit too far in that sometimes, it certainly hits more than it misses. It is also perhaps their most accessible films because the weirdness has a sort of universal quality to it whereas a lot of their other films appeal more to smaller audiences. Bridges' attitude really carries the whole thing because no matter how strange the titular Lebowski's family and associates are, the Dude truly abides throughout and he gives us something to anchor onto. I can watch this film with a lot of enjoyment even if I don't have the love for it that some others do.

#5: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

This is a project which was so strange it could only have worked under the Coens' guidance. I mean, in all honesty who else would have looked at Homer's The Odyssey and thought "You know what, this is good but it could use a transplant to the deep south and a lot of bluegrass"? And yet not only did it work; it became the brothers' first true commercial smash success. Sure, part of that was the use of A-lister George Clooney but it certainly wasn't the only thing or Intolerable Cruelty would have been a smash too. The film is simply a joy from start to finish and it hooked mainstream audiences inescapably into Joel and Ethan's filmography. Clooney has amazing chemistry with Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro as the brainless escaped criminals and Roger Deakins' cinematography work has had an impact on nearly every film since; Deakins was the first director of photography to use digital in order to give a complete makeover to his film's color palette. This also has the best soundtrack of a Coen Brothers film to date (although all indications are that Llewyn Davis could give it a run for its money). John Goodman is also a joy as the cycloptic bible salesman as a side note. This is a film which will stick as one of the true greats of the early 21st century.

#4: True Grit (2010)

Certain films often seem untouchable, the kind of movies that you just shouldn't try to remake. Citizen Kane. The Grapes of Wrath. Casablanca. Gone with the Wind. And while I am actually not the biggest John Wayne fan, I would have considered True Grit to be on that list. Thus, like many people I was both skeptical and intrigued when Joel and Ethan announced that they would be "re-adapting" the novel on which Wayne's 1969 Oscar-winning film was made. If anyone could do it justice, it would have been the Coens...but could even they pull it off? We waited with baited breath until the end of 2010 to see, and the answer was a resounding "yes." First off, this is perhaps one of the few "re-adaptations" of a classic novel which is actually its own film and not just a remake of the previous film. I love Let Me In, but it is more a remake of Let the Right One In than a new film based on the same book. With True Grit the film truly took a more faithful approach than the original and it worked in spades. This is one of those films that prove how fantastic the brothers are with dialogue; it comes off the tongues of Hailee Steinfeld, Bridges and the rest of the cast sounding absolutely poetic but without losing the authenticity (or at least suspension of disbelief) that they could be said in the old West. Roger Deakins' cinematography is as beautiful as ever and the brothers get brilliant performances out of their cast, making for one of the better Westerns of the twenty-first century to date.

#3: Raising Arizona (1987)

The Coen Brothers' second film was the one in which the duo's famously idiosyncratic filmmaking style truly began to take shape. Raising Arizona is a film which Joel and Ethan filled with sight gags, strange characters and bizarrely humorous situations that complement Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter's excellent turns as the married couple-turned-babynappers H.I and Edwina. Of all of their comedies, Arizona is the most consistently funny without a doubt. Cage's narration is solidly done and doesn't fall into the trap most narration does of telling over showing, while the supporting performances by John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand and Trey Wilson are fine. Tex Cobb turns in an especially memorable performance as bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, who is almost more of a force of nature than an actual human being. The plot twists are silly but they are intended to be and that really makes them work. You can argue that the brothers have made better films from some of the efforts lower on this list, but this is one that delivers in every area it aims to and its status as their best comedy pushes it just a bit higher than True Grit for me. What's more, the film has aged surprisingly well; it's still a funny and very enjoyable movie to watch. That if nothing else is enough to push it to #3.

#2: Fargo (1996)

While O Brother was the film in which the Coens became true mainstream success stories, Fargo was the film in which everyone stood up and took notice. This tale, inspired by several different real-life crimes (although it is not, as the opening card claims, a true story) is not a true comedy in the traditional sense; this is why I can consider Raising Arizona their best comedy. This is much more of a crime thriller than it is a dark comedy, but it is still wickedly funny and that helps the thriller aspects go down much smoother. I feel like I almost don't need to mention the acting, but I will anyway. Frances McDormand became a true star with this role, in which she plays pregnant Fargo police chief Marge Gunderson. McDormand commands the screen with ease, even surrounded by great performances from William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare and more. This is in many ways the culmination of their neo-noir and offbeat comedy efforts, blended into one mix that really shouldn't have worked but in fact became stronger because of its disparate elements. This is the opposite of the high-gloss, fast-moving crime thrillers that Hollywood is traditionally saturated with and that helps it rise well above the pack. The brothers truly outdid themselves with this one.

#1: No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country is the brothers' most divisive film without question. There are those who, like I do, consider it their pinnacle as filmmakers to date. And there are others who consider it disastrously overrated, anchored only by its supporting turn from Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh. I understand why people walked away from this film disappointed; the way that characters die off-screen with their fates not fully laid out and the very non-standard Hollywood-esque ending drive some people insane. But these are among the things that really make the film great. The Coens took a restrained, quiet approach in both writing the script and making the film itself. This approach makes the violence in the film all the more shocking and the discomfort generated from the way it defies traditional film structure adds to the natural tension that the plot brings. And can we talk about Roger Deakins' breath-taking work on the cinematography? The way he captures the stark, desolate plains both captures audiences and contributes to the nearly hopeless feel of the film. Carter Burwell's score is quiet yet powerful and is used at just the right moments to lead the audience in the right direction. And the acting is phenomenal from all involved. This is a film in which every action used toward its completion aided the Coens in guiding this film toward what they intend it to be: a piece that is equal parts Western, crime story, drama and even a little horror at times. It's both hopeless and full of capricious tricks of coincidence, and yet somehow manages to convey feelings of hope and something better by the end. This is an emotional roller coaster of a film, and every choice that the Coens leads the audience to a new place in such a skillful way that one can't help but appreciate it. Few films approach true perfection, but for my money No Country for Old Men is one of them.

Disguise of the Episode

Current Series/Season: Season One (2001 - 2002)
Episodes Watched: 8
Last Serial Completed: Time Will Tell - Sydney must undergo an extensive lie detector test to satisfy Sloane's frantic search for the SD-6 mole. Meanwhile, with nemesis Anna Espinosa following her every move, Sydney seeks out the connection that a device may have to the 500-year-old prophetic Rambaldi sketch. The mystery of Kate Jones deepens as Will continues to investigate Danny's death; and Sydney discovers that a keepsake from her mother Laura contains more disturbing connections into Jack's past alliances.
Episodes Remaining: 97

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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