Yes yes, opinions.
Hail, Caesar!, the newest film from the Coen Brothers is released this Friday, February 5th, and to celebrate what will hopefully be a bright spot in cinema’s underwhelming winter months, I’m ranking the top five films by the auteurs.
I spent much of late December and January catching up on the films of theirs that I hadn’t seen, mainly to see if any of them could knock my number one off it’s throne (they couldn’t). Due to this recent binge I have a very fresh outlook on their filmography. Big Lebowski fans,prepare yourselves and settle down, because that typical favorite didn’t make the cut for me. What I found more frustrating was not including A Serious Man, which I loved. If I were making a list on performances alone it would be in the ranking no questions asked. Michael Stulberg and Richard Kind were both tremendous. Similarly, if I was ranking the films based on the music alone, O Brother, Where art Thou? would get a nod because of it’s absolutely stellar soundtrack. Unfortunately the film never rose to the heights of its music.
Tracing the course from their early films to their newest (not counting the scripts they’ve penned) has solidified the fact that the Coens have got to be two of the most versatile filmmakers working today, sailing from one genre to the next with an inimitable ease while simultaneously refusing to allow any one genre to dictate how their films play out. There is somewhat of a thorough line throughout their films, with repeat plays of songs (“Fare thee Well” “Somebody to Love”) and reusing names taken from classical literature popping up time and again in their work. No Coen brother film feels like the last, but these little details make them all cohesive, demonstrating how they come from the same inventive and darkly humorous minds.
The cultural influence this film has had in the cinematic and media landscape is undeniable, so even if the film left me feeling cold, the impact is too significant to ignore. Performances from Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy and especially Coen favorite Frances McDormand as Marge are all strong-setting the cement for careers that have been lasting and rich. It’s a film that works best viewing from a distance where you can appreciate it as a complete and perfectly packaged vision.
The expansive, mid-western landscapes and an opening musical theme that has become iconic, the film more than anything, such as the case with the actors, is a showcase for the astounding artistry involved. It also happens to be one of the Coen’s funniest scripts, which plays with the natural, unassuming good nature of the characters as their lives run parallel with the terrible and gruesome events that threaten surround them in what turns into a biblical battle against good and evil.
I’m in a weird position with this film because while I enjoyed all of it (clearly) there’s also a slighter film in Miller’s Crossing that I unequivocally adore. Carter Burwell’s soaring score is evocative as is the cinematography of the overgrown and green crossing in question. No character is all of what they seem and the film is a strong argument in saying that Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro deserve better careers than what they currently have. The humor is present and Albert Finney’s Leo gets to play with the physical comedy while also arguably being the most imposing character the Coen’s have ever created.
The shootout scene to the song “Danny Boy: is a towering achievement in filmmaking. From the tension riddled beginning as Leo just barely escapes his burning house alive to him calmly tracking down his last assailants who are trying to escape by car, the scene is orchestrated by people who understand their craft.
Rightfully believed to be their most expansive example of storytelling the Western is two hours of stomach clenching intensity. No one character is painted as an archetype, with Tommy Lee Jones delivering one of his most haunted performances to date. It’s Javier Bardem’s senselessly violent but meticulous villain however that is given the highest praise for the film, making a bone deep evil character instantly compelling and even more terrifying. Despite the oppressive heat of the location the atmosphere is overwhelmingly chilling, with Roger Deakins cinematography highlighting not only the natural isolation of the characters but sheer physical space but also the psychological distance. These characters and their oftentimes stress inducing struggles are almost unfathomable to understand due to how singled out the locations are.
The Coen’s are at their best when they find comedy in tragedy. As a fan who has never been a huge fan of their strictly comedic fanfare, Barton Fink hits that sweet spot of absurdist humor dipped in surrealism. Playing with themes of good and evil, the devil as well as being a cutting satirical look at show business. The film is almost too daring in their genre leaping and thematic whirlwind of a movie that it threatens to take you out of the story. Luckily the atmosphere soaks up our attention, with details such as the eerily peeling wallpaper and the hotel staff that seem to know more than they let us. However, its John Turturro’s manic performance that always seems to err on the side of unhinged and his dynamic with the always good John Goodman that keeps viewers so entirely engaged.
With Inside Llewyn Davis I suspect I’ll have my fellow passionate fans along with those who are mildly confused by the pick. My personal love of this film has only grown since I first watched it and even taking a step back and casting a critical eye upon it there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the Coen Brothers most triumphant achievement to date, in large part due to what they don’t do.
The humor hasn’t disappeared but it’s underlying and comes in pieces. There’s no score but instead is backed by songs sung in the film by the actors. The set design, the cinematography and the direction all lends itself beautifully to the time period of the film and Oscar Isaac’s breakout tour de force performance is equal parts soulful, sad and memorable. Llewyn is possibly the richest character the directors have created.
Which leads to the strongest part if the film: the empathy. I wouldn’t call the Coen Brothers cynical filmmakers but there is often a bit of a gulf between us and the characters, being set up to consume their films as spectacles rather than growing attached to one character. Llewyn is a prick. He’s a character who actively sabotages any hint of good fortune but he is also talented, grieving and as he plainly says, tired. He’s a jerk but the empathy the directors employ make us want him to succeed.
It’s the warmest film that the duo have ever done and it’s the film where as an audience member I felt engulfed by the emotions as well as the atmosphere.
Let us know what your own personal rankings would be and where, after seeing it, Hail, Caesar! would fall.