The Coen Brothers. If you look at my top 500 films of al-time count (7 films) and top 100 films of the decade count (11) it would look like the Coen Brothers should be a top 10-15 director(s). They might be in time.  With no top 100 all-time films (that hurts) their filmography ranks them 20th actually but remember that’s not counting anything from 2009 to now so we’re talking about some major works (A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis) still to come on my next update. Still, the Coens’ are the third highest rated director(s) who made their debut post 1980 (P.T. Anderson, Kar-Wai Wong). They have made 18 films, 17 of them archiveable (Ladykillers), and 10-11 of them in the top 10 of the year. Indeed, they have an undeniably strong case

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A Serious Man- truly great use of the frame here

Best film: Fargo .People who think this film launched their career into another stratosphere are exaggerating a bit- I mean their previous film starred Paul Newman and by my count they already had 3 top 500 all-time films under their belt. But Fargo is simply one of the 5 best screenplays of the 90’s. The Coens have created some of cinema’s greatest characters—Lebowski is right there- but I don’t think it gets better than their creation and construction of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. It may also be Carter Burwell’s greatest achievement with the film score—it’s unique- but it builds and rolls over the top like Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score. Period and location details- not just the accents by a long stretch but mise-en-scene for sure- scrapping the car off, the clothes, the hair, but make no mistake about it- the Coens are in love with this unique vernacular… but there’s more– tonight show in bed, cheesy picture at the car dealership, Macy’s wife with her voice inflections. What smacked me in the face with the latest viewing (probably about #10) is the stunningly gorgeous reoccurring shots of snow-filled parking lots and that fence scene. It’s architecture as character and not something I see much in the Coen’s filmography (though it is actually first used in their debut Blood Simple)- it blew me away. A strong meditation on greed, chance/fate.

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Fargo– matches their debut 12 years earlier (below) in Blood Simple– visuals and narrative married here

total archiveable films: 17

top 100 films: 0

top 500 films:  7 (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

from the opening of O Brother- truly painterly work of the decor and mise-en-scene

top 100 films of the decade: 11 (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Inside Llewyn Davis)

from Lebowski– a blending of pulp detective fiction, Busby Berkeley musicals in the surrealism sequence

most overrated:  Raising Arizona– I love Raising Arizona (more so the wonderful opening than the increasingly slapstick last half hour). TSPDT has it as their 5th best film and I’ve got it as #10.

most underrated:  Blood Simple at #798 on TSPDT is ridiculous- I’m at #328. Blood Simple is one of the all-time great debut films—lots of them out there from Citizen Kane to The 400 Blows. Like nearly all of their work to follow, Blood Simple is a meditation on fate and randomness. We have, here, covering up someone else’s murder, McDormand’s character thinking she’s just killed Hedeya at the end—it absolute packs a punch. The Walsh character laughs and says “if I see him. I’ll sure give him the message”—hauntingly good. I love Paulline Kael’s “isn’t about anything” misguided awful negative review. The car coming while crime is going on would be repeated in Fargo. The beautiful minimalist Carter Burwell piano score.

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fate from the “god’s eye view” here in Blood Simple

gem I want to spotlight:  I want to spotlight their 1990 and 1991 films. I feel like they get overlooked and my god Miller’s Crossings and Barton Fink are astounding films. Miller’s is all style and polish made with panache (those gorgeous shots in the woods) and Fink is a slow-burn minimalist writer’s block meditation (amongst other things). If these are the 6th and 7th best films from the Coen’s….they match up well with any auteur’s 6th and 7th best film.

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Miller’s Crossing is the Coen brothers showing off visually from the lush period interiors to the climatic wood sequence here
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haunting imagery in Barton Fink- a kafkaesque nightmare
the gobsmackingly brilliant formal conclusion in Barton Fink

stylistic innovations/traits:   Black comedy crime and a knack for colloquial languages and screenwriting- idiosyncratic and postmodern. Ok, so they aren’t as brilliant behind the camera as Ophuls or even Cuaron or anything but unlike some critics, I don’t think they are predominantly writing talents. They DO make beautiful films (Deakins has shot 12 of their 18 films).  More importantly, they certainly do create their own cinematic world. “All style and no substance” is continually the knock on the Coen’s—well sign me up for that. Again, hey aren’t as visually spectacular as Lynch or Malick or even a few others that will come shortly on this list but they DO create their own world and have given us the some of the best films of the past 35 years. Indeed, still going strong their oeuvre already contains as many top 500 all-time films as Fellini, Scorsese, Welles, and Tarkovsky and more than Coppola, Antonioni, Kurosawa and we haven’t hit the eligibility for A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis.  

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From The Man Who Wasn’t There– when this film, with a brilliant narrative and crisp monochrome visuals from the Coen’s and Deakins– doesn’t make your top 10- you have an all-time auteur

Their work features word repetition and incredible narratives that just roll (No Country For Old Men in particular). Character creation is a forte of theirs as well from Marge Gunderson to Jeff Lebowski to Anton Chigurh and Llewyn Davis. Meditation and exploration of fate- from the coin toss in No Country, to the randomness of the finale of Blood Simple.  You have the bookends in Llewyn Davis (Llewyn is getting his ass kicked in the alley while Dylan is becoming a star) andthe falling pin in Lebowski (Fate—Donnie strikes all movie long then the night of his death the pin stands up when it shouldn’t- he threw it perfectly).  

compelling characters and narrative bliss in No Country For Old Men

top 10

  1. Fargo
  2. The Big Lebowski
  3. No Country For Old Men
  4. Inside Llewyn Davis 
  5. A Serious Man
  6. Barton Fink
  7. Miller’s Crossing
  8. Blood Simple
  9. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  10. Raising Arizona

By year and grades

1984- Blood Simple MS
1987- Raising Arizona HR
1990- Miller’s Crossings MS
1991- Barton Fink MS
1994- The Hudsucker Proxy R
1996- Fargo MP
1998- The Big Lebowski MP
2000- O Brother, Where Art Thou MS
2001- The Man Who Wasn’t There R/HR
2003- Intolerable Cruelty R
2007- No Country For Old Men MP
2008- Burn After Reading HR
2009- A Serious Man MP
2010- True Grit R/HR
2013- Inside Llewyn Davis MP
2016- Hail, Caesar R
2018- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives