Hello and welcome to Director of the Month, your cut-out-and-keep guide to the very finest auteurs in filmland…
This Month: Joel and Ethan Coen
D.O.B: 29/11/1954 (Joel) and 21/09/1957 (Ethan)
Years active: 1984 – present
Number of films (as a director-producer team): 15
Do say: “Quentin Tarantino got the mega-stardom, Wes Anderson the cult following and Paul Thomas Anderson the critical praise… But I think we all know, deep down inside, that 90s cinema really belonged to you two.”
Don’t say: “Which one of you really makes all these films?”
Who hell they? It was a widely-held belief just after the fact that the 1990s had shaped up to be a Golden Age for filmmaking in the US – perhaps even on a par with the near-mythical New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Now even if you don’t quite agree with that school of thought, you surely have to concede that many more exciting American filmmakers broke through in the period between 1990 and 1999 than have done in the whole of the 13 years since. OK, so Joel and Ethan Coen made their first film in 1984, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that they really established themselves - releasing a distinctive and uniformly high quality film at least every couple of years throughout the entire decade. And despite being just-about household names, not to mention the cornerstone of any discerning modern film collection, they never seem to really get the full credit and respect they deserve.
On the other hand, pretty much any Coen brothers film could be slammed for being as “derivative” as any of Quentin Tarantino’s (they wear their between-the-wars Hollywood influences on their sleeves), or for being as “affected” as anything by Wes Anderson (the Coens character you could expect to meet in real life is a truly rare thing)… But they never are. Their films seem to be almost as exempt from harsh criticism as they are from rapturous popular praise, but I have a hunch that this may be a result of the fact that the Coens have an easy, human and strangely contrivance-proof touch – something that you certainly can’t ascribe to Tarantino, Anderson or pretty much any of their other contemporaries (most of whom I like). They’re just really good at making really clever - yet strangely unfussy - films, and they almost never let you down. And that is why the Coen brothers were the best filmmakers of the 90s. So there.
Six of the Best:
Raising Arizona (1987)
Surely one of the most riotously entertaining films ever made? This is a head-spinning mix of screwball comedy, crime caper and modern day fairytale, and it’s certainly the most charming film ever made about child-napping! Nicolas Cage is on gloriously manic form here as a goofy ex-con pressurised by his sassy, police officer wife into abducting one of the “Arizona Quints” – the sprogs of a famous local businessman - a scheme which careens almost completely off the rails, of course. The Coens gleefully deliver the madcap (and occasionally quite touching) results in truly masterful style.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
A breathtakingly and brilliantly plotted - as well as being in-turns comic and melancholy - film noir, it’s a crying shame that Miller’s Crossing isn’t held in quite as high regard as it really deserves to be. Borrowing heavily from the works of master crime scribe Dashiell Hammett (including Red Harvest, which also inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), Gabriel Byrne is suitably hard-boiled as the Irish hood caught up in a turf war between his fellow countrymen and a rival Italian mob. And if the enthralling, twisting plot wasn’t enough to draw you in, the tough and zippy dialogue is frankly some of the best to be featured in any noir of any period… “I open my mouth, the whole world turns smart.”
Barton Fink (1991)
So exhaustingly well-written in fact was Miller’s Crossing, that for their next trick the Coens were inspired to concoct this nightmarish tale of a neurotic writer struggling to come up with the goods for Hollywood. This is an intensely claustrophobic horror-comedy, which impressively manages to run the gamut between Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and a baggy-pants showbiz satire along the lines of The Producers. The cast are uniformly terrific, and while the ever-undervalued John Turturro is magnificent in the title role, fellow Coens favourite John Goodman steals the show as his sinisterly jovial neighbour.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Almost a greatest hits compilation of everything the Coens have already shown us they excel at, The Hudsucker Proxy has bags of charm, snappy dialogue to spare and a playfully fantastical feel, which occasionally strides into darker territory. Tim Robbins stars as a country bumpkin-turned-corporate stooge, unwittingly elected as the president of a large New York company by Machiavellian board member Paul Newman as part of a dastardly scheme to bring share prices crashing down. Things take an unexpected turn, however, after he proves a massive success by almost literally reinventing the wheel - You know, for kids.
Having shown their love of film noir, the brothers then decided to bring us their own unique variation on the formula (perhaps film blanc?), as double-cross, murder and mayhem pay a rare cinematic visit to the middle-classes of the snowy mid-west. One of the great “location” films, the perky, quirky accents and frozen terrain of Minnesota will forever be associated with sappy car dealer William H. Macy’s hare-brained plot to stage his own wife’s kidnap and collect the ransom, in much the same way you can’t think of San Francisco without picturing Steve McQueen. Fun Fact: Despite the pre-title card which claims Fargo is a true story, the whole thing is entirely fictional, and this bold claim otherwise was just Joel and Ethan’s typically idiosyncratic idea of a joke.
The Big Lebowki (1998)
While it might well shape up to be the last bona fide cult film (and I mean cult as in proper, Rocky Horror-type cult, not Gen Zzzz wannabe tosh like Donnie Darko), The Big Lebowski would still be one of the most memorable films of the last 20-odd years, even without its army of dressing gown-clad, White Russian-sipping super-fans. Despite the early 90s setting, this is as much homage to classic film noir as Miller’s Crossing, with Jeff Bridges’ washed-up hippie protagonist getting pulled into an intrigue that goes way over his head after a pair of inept heavies break into his house and pee on his rug. Having just read that sentence back, I am reminded of how hard it is to recount exactly what happens in The Big Lebowski, but that my friends is all part of its gloriously shaggy appeal.
What about the rest?: Blood Simple (1984) is a crackling neo-noir in which the plot to kill a promiscuous wife and her latest lover backfires not only on her husband, but also on his hired assassin (have you managed to work out yet that the Coens rather like film noir?)… O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is a terrific Depression-era reworking of Homer’s Odyssey that comes complete with a charming folk and bluegrass soundtrack… The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is yet another homage to the brother’s beloved noir, spinning a gripping yarn in which sheepish nobody Billy Bob Thornton blackmails the big-shot who is having an affair with his wife… The Coens took their first notable misstep with Intolerable Cruelty (2003), an uncharacteristically weak crack at a romantic comedy which at least yields some interesting moments… The Ladykillers (2004) is an ill-fitting American remake of the Ealing comedy classic that never really sparks to life… No Country for Old Men (2007) is an occasionally engossing and often infuriating neo-western, memorable not least for Javier Bardem’s turn as a poncey and preposterously Terminator-like killer… Burn After Reading (2008) got generally unfavourable reviews on its release, but in reality it’s a fairly decent espionage spoof that hits a few entertaining notes, even if it plays out in an overly zany key… Much more subdued in tone is A Serious Man (2009), which revisits the Coens Jewish, Minnesota routes… And True Grit (2010) succeeds where The Ladykillers failed in its rebooting of an old favourite, and indeed Jeff Bridges’ take on one-eyed western lawman Rooster Cogburn is superior to John Wayne’s earlier Oscar winning turn… Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) isn’t released until next year and – I’m very sorry to have to tell you this – it’s got Justin Timberlake in it…Tweet