Cinema of the Coens: Part V

This is it. After many posts and fifteen films, we found ourselves at the end of the modern journey of the Coen Bros’ career. For now, at least.

This is Cinema of the Coens, Part V.

True Grit (2010)

It’s a remake of a John Wayne film adapted from a novel. Well, it’s more just the latter, as the Coens wrote directly from the novel as opposed to watching the Wayne classic. The western tells the tale of 14-year old Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) as she seeks out her father’s murderer, wanted criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the help of US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and finds Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) also on the hunt for another murder. It’s a western man-chase that ends in one of the greatest shoot-outs in film history – scenes like this are why the screens shine.

Praising the technical aspects of a Coen film is redundant by now, as is the expected superb quality of acting, but Steinfeld deserves special recognition. True Grit serves as her first feature film, and she not only delivers an excellent performance but one that brought her an Academy Award nomination. It’s seemed to me that child actors as of late have grown increasingly talented (the child ensemble was the best part of Super 8), in some cases better than their adult counterparts. Bridges seems to be running on new strength after his Oscar win, but Steinfeld, at only 14 years of age herself, is sure to have a strong career ahead of her. She does, after all, already have a Coen film under her belt.

The film was successful, bringing with it ten Oscar nominations, though it’s one of those films that you expect to receive many nominations but know will not win against its competitors. Yet in an era where studios find it hard to budget westerns, the Coens proved they have an audience. When people see the Coens’ names, they are all but guaranteed to have seen at least two of their films and know what to expect and whether they’ll like it. Bridges’ performance as a character originally played by Wayne helps, but it also helps that in font type half as large as the Oscar winning actors are the names ‘Joel and Ethan Coen.”

With that, after spending hours watching their films and more hours writing about them, I find myself with the difficulty of ranking them. It’s hard. The Coens are not my favorite director, but they are certainly in the top five. I’d expect as much from a duo as successful as they are, but how do you rank their films against one another? No Country is probably a better film than Burn After Reading, but it isn’t as funny, and I’m a big fan of the Coens’ dark comedy style. Hudsucker was a flop, but I found it rather entertaining, especially against Miller’s Crossing. I could easily randomly grab two and pick my favorite of them, but competing all fifteen against one another – bah! Nonetheless, this adventure of mine must be wrapped up, and so I will but preface that this list would no doubt be different if I made it tomorrow or next week. Right now, however, I’ll try.

Cinema of the Coens – A List

  1. Burn After Reading
  2. A Serious Man
  3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  4. Fargo
  5. The Ladykillers
  6. Barton Fink
  7. The Big Lebowski
  8. Intolerable Cruelty
  9. The Hudsucker Proxy
  10. True Grit
  11. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  12. No Country for Old Men
  13. Raising Arizona
  14. Miller’s Crossing
  15. Blood Simple

You never regret watching a Coen film, though you don’t always remember them vividly, either. All are good, be it artistically, creatively, comedically, or simply in awesomeness. The greatest thing about the films Joel and Ethan have made, though, is that they get better. It’s remarkably clear watching their fifteen films in order how they have learned and improve their style and process over the near thirty years that they have been working professionally. You seen them recognize the power that sound or color can have and start making strong use of it, or the effect a beloved actor can bring when working with the same people multiple times. The Coens have a style that both stays true through the decades yet changes shape to the change in viewer mindset and technology.

What does the future hold? You never really know what’s next for the Coens until production starts, as they are the type of filmmakers who like to plan a lot of things but only get around to making the best ones. It started in 1984 with Blood Simple and has moved through the decades and the genres. They’ve made big hits (No Country) and flops (Hudsucker), forgettable films (Miller’s Crossing) and must-see Oscar winners (Fargo). They’ve made comedies, crime thrillers, dark dramas and westerns. They’ve shocked us, awed us, and maybe disappointed us a few times, but most important of all: they’ve kept us wanting more.

There’s little doubt they will deliver.

Cinema of the Coens: Part One, Two, Three, Four

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