At a time when most every big Hollywood release is a re-make, or has a number after it, or involves superheroes out of comic books, or comes from the inside of a computer, I'm grateful for the Coen Brothers.
At a time when a movie like Django Unchained can earn a Best Screenplay Oscar, I'm grateful for the Coen Brothers.
At a time when a director insists on putting hip-hop music into a Roaring Twenties period picture, I'm grateful for the Coen Brothers.
Just why am I grateful? Well, let me count the ways.
1) They love and respect older films. (You knew I'd like that, right?) Supposedly, Joel went on record that The Guns Of Navarone is his favorite film. They even appreciate Doris Day movies-only the good ones, of course.
(And guess where they got the title for O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
2) At least partly influenced by their reverence for the classics, they place great value on stories and scripts. And it shows. Even with their misfires (which are few), you can tell they were attempting something interesting.
3) They never talk down to their audience. You get the sense they think the people they're writing for are actually pretty smart -- like them.
4) They have an uncanny way of evoking particular periods and places in their films, ones you never experienced. This makes their work consistently fascinating to watch and absorb.
5) The best of their movies stick and get better with time. (I'm not sure we'll be saying the same about Django Unchained in 20 years, or even about Argo- a decent, perfectly serviceable thriller that won... Best Picture?)
Post-script: I'd also like to salute Joel Coen for having the good taste and sense to marry Frances McDormand, one of the most talented screen actresses working today.
Here then, are my favorite Coen outings, in ascending order of preference:
Miller's Crossing (1990): Atmospheric tribute to all those 1930 mob movies the Coen brothers grew up watching. Albert Finney steals it as a besotted crime boss, whose insistence on protecting his girlfriend's dimwitted brother against a rival mob he cheated puts his lieutenant Gabriel Byrne in an awkward spot.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Three escaped convicts looking for hidden cash in 1930s Mississippi. In this wacky, picaresque cross between Ulysses and Sullivan's Travels, colorful characters and performances abound. Funny, fun and different.
True Grit (2010): A grizzled Jeff Bridges helps a self-possessed young girl look for her father's killer in this smart, highly entertaining Western. This is one of those rare instances when a re-make beats the original. Sorry, Duke -- but hey, you still won the Oscar the first time around.
Blood Simple (1985): Juicy, perverse noir homage concerns a sleazy Texas bar owner who decides to murder his cheating wife, then has tables turned on him. Great turns from a young Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmet Walsh.
No Country For Old Men (2007): Hunter in West Texas stumbles on a pile of drug money and decides to stash it. But a cold-blooded killer is hired to get it back. See this for Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning turn as one scary bad guy.
The Big Lebowski (1998): Jeff Bridges is Jeff Lebowski, known as "the Dude." When he's mistaken for another Jeff Lebowski, he and his stoner pals get drawn into a bizarre extortion plot. But the Dude abides, in this offbeat comic masterpiece.
Fargo (1996): Loser North Dakota car salesman in desperate need of cash plots to have his wife kidnapped so her wealthy father can put up the ransom, which he'll then share with the kidnappers. Naturally, everything goes wrong, but in truth, everything goes just right in this, my pick for all-time best Coen brothers film. You betcha!
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