Movies directed by the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) always carry a bitter aesthetic, like getting a glimpse of people living on the edge of society and the rules that encapsulate them. The Jewish brothers’ content isn’t just edgy, more like darker black sheep paraded in front of the camera starring well-known and semi-pretty faces. The message is often gloomy but always interesting. Bad or imperfect people doing bad things.
Joel’s latest, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is no different. Starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the most dangerous couple on Shakespeare’s ledger, it never sticks to any particular tone but loves hanging out with dread. It was the first time the brother, and husband of McDormand had made a movie without his brother. As we await their next project together, let’s break down their five best films.
Much-needed disclaimer: These are my five favorites. Most likely, they will differ from your five favorites, and that’s glorious. That way, we can ask ourselves why we love that particular film so much while others do not. Let’s get going with #5.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
If you ever closed your eyes and wondered how George Clooney would look singing a Soggy Bottoms Boy song with a pomade comb over and prison slacks, this is the reality. Co-starring Jewish actor Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro, the tale of three wayward souls who escaped from prison for some good old-fashioned adventures-including a tussle with St. Louisan John Goodman-is highly eccentric Coen material. It’s also hilarious.
All the Nicolas Cage haters can gather around this uproarious and beautifully bizarre comedy. This was retrograde Coen work, a brand of film that audiences don’t get to see anymore unless Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson tried to make a movie together. Holly Hunter co-stars opposite Cage as a couple who inadvertently steal a baby, get chased around by terrible people, and do it all looking dazed and confused. Laughter with some poignancy is promised.
The Big Lebowski
Easily one of the most quotable films of the past two decades. Jeff Bridges stepped into cult superstardom with this role as the wrongly accused dude who finds himself, along with his best friends Walter (a never better Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), chased around town by bad people. It’s where we found out that listening to bowling on a cassette tape can be comforting. It’s where non-Jewish people understood what someone could or couldn’t do on Shabbos (aka Shabbat). Julianne Moore and the late Charles Durning show up and enliven the plot.
The most polished piece of work from the brothers, this is where McDormand became a household name. Playing a sweet yet firm sheriff investigating crime and embezzlement in Minnesota, she stole the show as the unstoppable woman placed on a collision course with Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s kidnappers. William H. Macy and Harve Presnell are superb as the son-in-law and father-in-law who try to get Macy’s kidnapped wife back. A classic seedy, snowy, and messy tale that played like few other movies when it premiered in 1996.
Find me a gangster tale that doesn’t age and includes irresistible characters making bad choices, and I am yours. Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, and Turturro have rarely been better than in 1990 crime odyssey. Byrne’s Tom Reagan tries to keep the peace between rival mobs, only to find that his distorted loyalties have already poisoned the well.
Come for Byrne and Turturro in the woods, one man asking another to look into his heart. Wait for Finney gunning down a bevy of baddies with a Tommy Gun in his pajamas. Stay for the score, which never leaves your mind. It’s a classic.
Biggest Disappointment: The Ladykillers
Left Me Wanting More: Inside Llewyn Davis
Needs a Sequel: Fargo
Joel and Ethan Coen have always made movies with a detached heart and a darkened soul. They’ve brought out the best and bold in Clooney, Goodman, McDormand, Cage, and Turturro. Like their work or not, they have never changed for Hollywood. That deserves respect.